Thank you for the last 29 years

Robert Schlögl enters his well-deserved retirement

March 31, 2023

From April 2023, the Fritz Haber Institute will look a little different. The director of the Department of Inorganic Chemistry will have his last working day in this position on March 31, 2023, and will then enter his well-deserved retirement. Although he started his presidency in the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the beginning of the year, he will end his primarily scientific career on that day.

In 1994, at the age of 39, he joined the FHI as director and since then has played a major role in shaping the institute both scientifically and institutionally.

"Robert's energy and inventiveness seem inexhaustible, he has launched so many great things in his career than probably anyone else. You rarely knew exactly where he was or is, so I've often said he's like an electron, highly delocalized, but whenever you need an important answer or input from him, he's available. And in doing so, he has always looked beyond his own plate and has had an impact on society based on cutting-edge science." – Ferdi Schüth, MPI für Kohlenforschung

The scientific goal of his department was and is to gain and sharpen a general understanding of heterogeneous catalysis in order to solve current and future global challenges. This primarily involves research on the transformation of the energy system and the corresponding development of analytical methods.

One of the most important partners and a highly valued supporter of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin

"Robert Schlögl was and is one of the most important partners and a highly valued supporter of Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin and its light source BESSY II. Robert has taken on a variety of roles over the past years or decades. He was a mentor, supervisory board member, project partner and power user of BESSY II, helping to shape HZB with his creative ideas and drive. In doing so, he always had the international visibility of Berlin in mind and the idea of outstanding science coupled with the goal of contributing to solutions for pressing challenges of our time. The joint projects EMIL, Belchem and especially CatLab are exemplary and will be of lasting importance for science in the coming years and beyond." – Bernd Rech, HZB

"Robert’s interest in the further development of experimental techniques and facilities, in particular for the investigation of heterogeneous reactions under in situ and operando conditions, has helped create new research opportunities. Prime examples are the number of beamlines dedicated to interface physical chemistry at BESSY that he helped to establish.” – Hendrick Bluhm, FHI

Numerous scientific honors, memberships and publications attest to the very successful career of the internationally renowned and excellently networked scientist, who has also not shied away from exchanges with politicians.

"In addition to his unique scientific and strategic competence, to which we at HZB owe a lot, Robert is for me in the best sense of the word a critical friend who has his heart in the right place and last but not least Robert is for me also a real Bavarian "Spezl" - one with whom you can go through thick and thin - and who carries you along with his joie de vivre and energy." - Bernd Rech, HZB

At this turning point at the Fritz Haber Institute, it seems right to let Robert Schlögl himself have his say and review the past 29 years as director.


Dear Robert Schlögl, what are you particularly proud of scientifically during your years as director at FHI?

It was possible for me to contribute to the understanding of heterogeneous catalysis. The idea of my department was based on the research of the Nobel Prize winning experiment of Gerhard Ertl, on which we are working on the logical development, namely the dynamics and the material of the catalyst. We found out that and why the material and static catalysts are important. New methods and experimental consequences for this are being worked out at CatLab. I am particularly proud of this scientifically.

How has the institute changed over the past 29 years?

In short - enormous. 29 years is a long time. When I came to the FHI, the departments were completely independent, like small institutes within the institute, and yet they were wildly mixed in all the buildings, so that there were no optimal experimental conditions, not to mention the condition of the buildings. The individual buildings were fenced off, there was no uniform key system and consequently no lived campus. I wanted to change this status quo and wrote a development plan for Capus right at the beginning, which was fully implemented by the year 2000. In the early years, the departments had to be spatially unbundled in order to be able to work together better in terms of content. The workshops and other service departments were previously spread out all over the place and worked for the departments, but not centrally for the entire institute. We have changed that, and I am particularly proud of that. However, the unbundling of the departments should not be thought of as a simple one-step process. Many moves and small steps were necessary to create the campus we have today. My department, for example, moved 8 times, otherwise it would not have been possible. This was very challenging for the individual scientists and groups, but necessary for the Fritz Haber Institute as a whole. New appointments are made much easier because entire buildings are freed up and can be used immediately by the new director´s.

What did you particularly enjoy as director?

Developing the institute as an institution was challenging, but also fun. The conception of all this was great. We changed the cooling water system and basically optimized the institute in terms of organization. It's about working in teams, in matrix organizations. I don't think it's right to form groups only according to topics. Teams should be organized according to the competencies of their members; that's how I structured my department, and it was very successful.

What surprised you about the director position?

I knew beforehand that an MPG director has a lot of freedom, but I was still very surprised by this freedom. It is not comparable to a professorship at a university. I was very young, 39 years old, when I was appointed director. At that time, directors were appointed relatively surprisingly, I myself didn't know that my person was being discussed for this position until I got the offer - that has changed today. The freedom also means that one's own orientation can be changed and I have been able to use that for myself. I am a problem-oriented person, so if the challenges changed, I changed and adapted my science to work on solutions. Especially at the beginning of my time as director, I approached all challenges without fear, maybe that was also due to my "youth naivety".

What else would you have liked to implement?

I would not have wanted to change or do anything differently. I am completely convinced of the way my groups were organized and of the scientific work itself. We have gone a very good way, found answers to problems, and now others can build on these results and continue on the same path.

It would be wrong of me to stick to this path and want to continue on it myself. New and younger scientists with new ideas and approaches are crucial and always do the cause good. Science has to be creative and agile, and with time these qualities become less so. I am proud to end my scientific career at this point and make room for someone new.

What advice and wishes do you have for the institute?

The institute is great, I wish everyone to continue in unity. The work, the topics and issues are as current as they were a hundred years ago and the solutions and concepts that this institute can offer are enormously important for the world. All colleagues and especially all those who bear responsibility should bear this in mind. The privilege but also the responsibility that has been given to the directors at the FHI is a very high good and must be consciously perceived. Directors are like tenants at the institutes and when they move out, everything should be returned properly. I have tried to do that and I am leaving on good terms.

Thank you very much for the interview!


The idea of the Max Planck Society is to appoint and have directors work according to the Harnack principle. This involves leading top researchers who are given freedom to act and shape their institutes. With Robert Schlögl, a director was appointed 29 years ago who is not only an outstanding scientist, but is also highly regarded by his colleagues.

An outstanding mentor, colleague and friend

„Robert is an enthusiastic and determined scientist with an incredible wealth of knowledge who tirelessly pursues new ideas and encourages his collaborators and colleagues to break new ground. In addition to his scientific contributions, he has also a great personality with excellent mentoring skills of young scientists. His commitment to society involves not only public discussions of important societal topics, such as the energy change, but also their practical realization. As a consequence, the CatLab project was founded..“ – Annette Trunschke, FHI

“Robert Schlögl is an outstanding director with an amazing knowledge. He has the capability to fascinate his coworkers of new scientific ideas and he was able to motivate people to work on the validation of the ideas. Robert is a very friendly person which enables very fruitful and sustainable collaborations and friendships.” - Axel Knop-Gerick, FHI

„My colleague director Robert Schlögl can be best defined as “omni-competent”, since in the last 6 years I had the pleasure to interact with him I am yet to find something that he cannot do, and not only do, but he excels at whatever endeavor he sets his mind on to. Scientifically he has made seminal contributions to the mechanistic understanding of catalytic processes thanks to the use and development of operando spectroscopic and microscopic characterization methods. However, he is not only a hard core professor who pays extreme care to the detail and rigor of any scientific work he is involved with, but he is also an excellent mentor, colleague and friend, someone who can transmit his excitement for science to others, his curiosity and revolutionary ideas.  He has been and continues being the motor for the much needed Energy Transition in Germany, making a tremendous service to German policy makers. He has generated a large number of patents and frequently serves as advisory to industrial partners. His services to the academic scientific community and his outreach efforts have also been tremendous and will continue to be in his role of AvH President and Leopoldina Vice President.

Anybody knowing Robert Schlögl is well aware that his sense of duty and service to others greatly overshadows any common sense, selfness and even our genetically driven self-preservation efforts. Thus, it is expected that Robert’s retirement from the FHI just means that he will put one hat down but he has already 50 others waiting for him in the cabinet, since his value as scientific advisor is internationally highly sought for…and to be frank, since he would not be any longer Robert Schlögl if he would not have an 200 % overcommitment in his calendar. I wish Robert the best for his retirement, and I am looking forward to continue learning from him in the years to come. His merits as outstanding scientist go hand in hand with a very kind spirit that makes scientific discussions highly enjoyable…of course once one has managed to get through the first shock of his straightforward “Bayerishes Art.” - Beatriz Roldán Cuenya, FHI

Many thanks Robert Schlögl, the Fritz Haber Institute owes you a lot and wishes you only the best for the future.

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