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Professor Helga NOWOTNY

92nd Congregation (2023)

Professor Helga NOWOTNY

Doctor of Social Science


Scientific research that has shaped modern humanity, and upon which all our futures may depend, arguably requires three fundamental ingredients to thrive: funding, knowledge, and wisdom.

Without funding there is no research infrastructure or talent development, and without accumulating the knowledge gained from that research there is no innovation. But now, more than ever, the world needs every decision to be guided by that third ingredient, wisdom. And this includes two things often overlooked in the laboratory: an appreciation of the context in which the science is done, and an evaluation of its possible consequences. Here, science meets social sciences, ethics and policy.

Today’s honorand has played a distinctive, key role in the progress and understanding of scientific research, not only through her own studies, but by nurturing others through her leadership in research funding and policy across Europe. She is Professor Helga Nowotny, a former president and founding member of the European Research Council (ERC), and Professor emerita of Science and Technology Studies, ETH Zurich.

Professor Nowotny has drawn upon a long career traversing law, sociology and, most significantly, in science and technology studies (or STS) in which she is a true pioneer. She has been deeply engaged in science and innovation policy, culminating in her role as president of the ERC from 2010 to 2013, after serving as vice president from 2007, the year it was founded as a first pillar and source of science excellence within the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme. Previously she had been chair of the European Research Advisory Board, which played a key role in the creation of the ERC.

As a founder and leader, she helped shape the ERC as a funding agency run by scientists for scientists, and embracing the social sciences and humanities, supporting primarily early careers in frontier research, and interdisciplinary collaboration. Since 2007, it has gone on to fund more than 12,000 projects and over 10,000 researchers. More than 850 research institutions now host ERC award grantees, who include 12 Nobel Prize winners.

Professor Nowotny has credited her background in STS with making it easy for her to listen to scientists and understand their work systems and needs, and roles within society. It is no surprise that she has been sought after for so many leadership and advisory positions. Today, these include being a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with the privilege to propose names for the most coveted of awards, the Nobel Prizes, and as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Falling Walls Foundation, Berlin, dedicated to creating breakthroughs across borders and disciplines, and connecting science, business and society; and of the Austrian Council and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, among others. She is also Vice- President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, a leading forum for inter-generational and cross-discipline knowledge exchange.

These roles in funding and policy have been complemented by her own research and publications, which include most recently in English the hugely topical book, In AI We Trust. Power, Illusion and Control of Predictive Algorithms. This unpicks the role of and our ambiguous relationship with Artificial Intelligence, which she has described as developing to herald a new paradigm in human evolution in what she calls “digi-land” and across digital time. This builds on her previous research related to experiences of time and uncertainty. Her books include The Cunning of Uncertainty, which the Financial Times listed as one of the best of 2015; Naked Genes, Reinventing the human in the molecular age , (with Giuseppe Testa), published in 2011, and Insatiable Curiosity, Innovation in a Fragile Future , in 2008, among many others.

Professor Nowotny has been no stranger to uncertainty, having lived as a child in Vienna, Austria, during World War II, an experience that left her curious to understand how the world works. With a supportive family and particular encouragement from her mother, she was one of relatively few women to proceed from school to the University of Vienna, where she studied law. She excelled, continuing to complete a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1959.

At that point she met an all-too familiar obstacle. When she applied for a post as assistant professor in the Department of Criminology she was initially opposed, on the grounds of being a woman. She agreed with the Herr Professor that if a more capable man applied he should have the job. The job became hers – an experience that later prompted her to conduct research on gender biases in science, and pay special attention to addressing them in her leadership roles.

It was chance that led her to switch to sociology, after accompanying her husband in his move to New York in the mid-1960s. For want of alternative opportunities in law, she decided to pursue a Ph.D . at Columbia University, where she was mentored by two of the founding fathers of modern sociology, Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton.

After completing her PhD, with her thesis focused on macrosociology and its methodology, she returned to Vienna, to be head of the department of sociology at the Institute of Advanced Studies. She has since held teaching and research positions at Kings College, Cambridge; University of Bielefeld; Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, among others.

It was while spending a sabbatical year at Cambridge, and acting as tutor for a course called “Science, knowledge and belief”, that she broadened her knowledge of the sociology of science to anthropology, and eventually anchored her interest in science and technology studies. Her twin-track in international policy began when she returned to Vienna, where she became the director of a UN-affiliated social research institute in Vienna, the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research. Her non-linear progression left her well placed to contribute at the macro management and policy levels.

Her own studies on our relationship with AI remind us how human evolution has been intimately linked to technology - the quest to extend our capabilities through innovation, from the invention of writing onwards. In recent centuries that technology has come to be underpinned and speeded up by ever growing scientific knowledge. The impact now extends to the heart of modern life, for better and worse. On the one hand we struggle to contain the consequences of the development of the combustion engine, atomic bomb, and algorithms that can manipulate our thoughts and deeds. On the other, we know even from the work of research conducted in this university that the new knowledge we create can do so much for human health and well-being and, if we heed the predictions on climate change, to protect this planet.

Yet we also know science doesn’t just happen. It needs nurturing, understanding, funding and, yes, regulating. This is where Professor Nowotny has had such an influence, as a powerful advocate for an open – rather than determined – future that humans can still shape for the better. Artificial Intelligence will be a supporting tool that she calls to be regulated, as we take for granted for so many other “tools” we use in our daily lives, for safety and to prevent misuse. AI cannot, after all, replace human wisdom.

AI was the subject of a recent conference Professor Nowotny attended, where a haiku written by an AI was used to organize the working groups. She recalls in In AI We Trust that she found the result rather bland and unsatisfactory. So, she decided to write her own in the plane returning home. This one ended with the line “Future needs wisdom”.

In these times when the future holds so many uncertainties – despite the best predictive efforts of AI - we all need wisdom. Mr Chairman, it is my great honour to present a leader and scholar such immense wisdom, Professor Helga Nowotny, for the degree of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.


Citation is presented by Professor Nick Rawlins, Pro-Vice-Chancellor / Vice-President (Student Experience) and Master of Morningside College