New President for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Reflects Pope Francis' Focus

June 30, 2017
Joachim von Braun

 66-year-old German Joachim von Braun reflects Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Sí which defends the idea of integral ecology.

On June 2, 2017, Pope Francis appointed the new president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It is 66-year-old German Joachim von Braun, a specialist on agricultural and economic development. This appointment is in line with the encyclical Laudato Sí which defends the idea of integral ecology.

Joachim von Braun will replace 88-year-old Swiss microbiologist and geneticist Werner Arber, who had held the position since 2011. The new president was born in 1950, in North Rhine-Westphalia; he studied agronomics, then obtained a doctorate at the University of Bonn before working as a university lecturer and researcher in agricultural economics in universities in Göttingen, Kiel, and Bonn.

A Renewed Focus on the Poor

Joachim von Braun is considered an internationally leading expert on the problems of hunger and malnutrition. He was director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) headquartered in Washington from 2002 to 2009, then Director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn, where he is a professor of Economics.

His research fields include international economic development, economics of natural resources, poverty, agriculture, and science and technology policy, as well as international trade: all fields that are at the heart of the integral ecology developed in the encyclical Laudato Sí, and therein doubtless lies the explanation for Pope Francis’ choice.

Academy no Stranger to Controversy

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ work is regularly a source of controversy. On April 28, 2015, for example, it organized, with the pope’s blessing, a symposium on the “moral dimension of climate change and sustainable development”. One of the authorized speakers at the symposium was Jeffrey Sachs, known for his open support of controlling the birth rate through contraception and abortion.

More recently, during a symposium on “biological extinction” that was held from February 28 to March 1, 2017 – behind closed doors this time – the Academy did not hesitate to invite Paul Ehrlich, a scientist who advocates limiting the number of inhabitants on earth to an ideal number of one billion…

Unfortunately, this was not just a false step. In 2015, the Holy See chose Hans Schellnhuber, a member of the Academy who contributed to the pages on natural science in the pope’s encyclical, to present the encyclical Laudato Sí. This influential scientist, the famous founder of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, counselor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and to the European Commission, had the opportunity of saying on global warming: “It’s a triumph for science because at last we have stabilized something –- namely the estimates for the carrying capacity of the planet, namely below one billion people.”

History of the Academy

The purpose of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is to honor science, ensure its freedom, and promote research. It was founded in Rome in 1603, at first was known as the Academy of the Lincei; it was relaunched by Pius IX in 1847, and received new statutes and its current name from Pope Pius XI on October 28, 1936.

New statutes were approved by Paul VI on April 1, 1976, insisting on “ethnical or religious” non-discrimination, and the “multiracial” choice of members: the new main criteria for designating academy members became their morality and the eminence of their work.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has a special charter that it owes to Pius XI when he re-founded it: it is under the direct protection of the Sovereign Pontiff, while still remaining an entity with an independent status. The Academy is thus free to direct its own activities in its fields of competency. In a message to the academy members in 1940, Pius XII reminded them of the broad spirit of initiative proper to the institution: “To you noble champions of human arts and disciplines the Church acknowledges complete freedom in method and research.” 

Because of their independence, the Academy’s congresses, and studies, although they are without a doubt a wealth of information and an important basis of work, do not engage or otherwise bind the Church. The Holy See and the members under it can use the Academy’s work, on the condition that it first be examined and validated by the Magisterium: a qualification that, in principle, must follow a very precise internal procedure that leaves room for nothing arbitrary.