DFG and MPG Outline Plans to Improve Opportunities for Young Scientists

Earlier this year, an international commission released its report evaluating two leading German research funding organizations. The commission strongly recommended making the academic system more accessible to beginning researchers. Now, the heads of the two organizations--the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Max Planck Society (MPG)--have responded to the report.

The committee, chaired by British scientist Richard Brook, praised the two organizations, which each command a $2 billion budget, as the strong backbone of the German research system. However, the committee's members found plenty of room for improvement. They urged the organizations to find ways to grant young researchers greater independence and to simplify the academic advancement system in Germany. They also suggested facilitating collaborations between Max Planck Institutes and universities. The committee concluded: "Careers in the German academic system are determined by long phases of personal and scientific dependence. The different qualification levels are reached at a comparatively high age that makes it difficult to follow an alternative career outside academia."

The presidents of the DFG and MPG responded to the committee's report at a press conference last week in Berlin. The DFG's Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker and the MPG's Hubert Markl generally welcomed the given recommendations. They described current programs that address some of the concerns raised by the committee and outlined plans for creating more such programs. They emphasized their organizations' commitment to meeting international standards for the education and promotion of young scientists. "These are central concerns of our organizations," said Winnacker.

One program launched earlier this year by the DFG, the Emmy Noether Program, tackles the problem of long-term dependence by junior researchers. The program provides funds to promising young postdocs to set up and lead an independent research group after a two-year period of research abroad. Combined with a standard teaching load, the program qualifies researchers for full tenure positions without the traditional and lengthy process of writing a second dissertation.

Spurred by the committee's recommendations, the DFG will "now look for ways to further extend young scientists' options for applying for self-dependent positions beyond the Noether program," Winnacker said. He also announced that the DFG will simplify the current scholarship system for young scientists.

The committee endorsed MPG's new plan for international research schools. Similar to the DFG's international "Graduierten Kollegs," these graduate courses will be the product of a collaboration between MPG and universities. The working language for the international research schools will be English. "The research schools have the potential to attract outstanding graduate students from abroad," said Markl. Next year, the program will start up with five or six schools. As many as 30 could be established if the federal and state governments approve a proposed 5% annual increase in the MPG's budget.

Both Markl and Winnacker agreed in principle with the committee's recommendation to abandon the habilitation, an ordeal somewhat akin to a second Ph.D. that most German researchers must endure before being promoted to full professor. "I believe the habilitation increasingly is becoming an obstacle in the international competition," said Markl. Other staff-related reforms in the works include introducing performance-related salary hikes and easing regulations that interfere with hiring scientists from abroad. These reforms would make Germany considerably more attractive in the global competition for the brightest brains, Markl suggested.

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