National Centers Urged to Team Up and Compete

This article appears in the January 26 issue of Science magazine.

FRANKFURT--Germany's 16 national research centers--a sprawling, $2-billion-a-year array of labs ranging from the DESY synchrotron in Hamburg to the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin--are too insular, according to a new report from the nation's top scientific evaluative body. It urges the government to foster cooperation--as well as healthy competition--among the centers and between them and outside labs by following a U.S.-style funding model that emphasizes research programs that cut across many institutions rather than block grants to individual facilities.

The latest evaluation, released Monday by the Science Council, adds the final piece of a comprehensive review of the entire German research system. Done by a 14-member panel of German and international experts, the new study finds that the research centers and their governing organization--the Helmholtz Association--suffer from inadequate networking and "too few incentives for competition." It also recommends that the centers broaden their research agendas and bolster ties with university researchers.

Helmholtz's 9300 scientists constitute Germany's biggest scientific workforce outside the university system. The nation's federal and state research ministries spend about $1.5 billion a year on the centers, with grants from other German and European research agencies and industry adding another $500 million. Helmholtz's president--Detlev Ganten, who heads the Max Delbrück Center--says the association has already been moving in the direction of more center-spanning research and is conducting "intensive negotiations" with federal and state research ministries over how to manage a revised funding system. He says that the centers already pool 5% of their budgets for competitive grants in six strategic areas.

Ganten warns that the suggested changes would require more predictable budgeting. (The centers have received relatively small increases in recent years and are still awaiting their budget for this year.) "For long-term research programs, we need longer term budgeting and more flexibility," he says. "We don't want politically 'guided' research. We want absolute academic freedom within the categories of research that are agreed upon." One significant reform already under way involves the GBF biotechnology center in Braunschweig. Its new director, mouse-mutant researcher Rudi Balling, is shifting the center's focus from 1980s-era biotech projects such as bacterial fermentation to studies on the genetic basis of infectious diseases. GBF is also planning to work more closely with other biomedical research centers, including Max Delbrück, Heidelberg's DKFZ cancer research center, and Munich's GSF environmental health research center. "National research institutes can't be islands or ivory towers," says Balling. "They have to become more competitive and more useful for other German researchers." National research centers in the physical sciences--such as the GSI heavy-ion research group in Darmstadt and the DESY particle physics center in Hamburg--say their equipment is already being used extensively by scientists at universities and other German research institutions. GSI's scientific director, physicist Walter F. Henning, says that about 900 of the 1000 users of the heavy-ion accelerator come from outside the center, mainly from European universities.

Although Henning thinks that program-oriented financing is a good idea, he worries that Germany may not have enough experts on the federal payroll to make the system work. "Program-oriented research is the way to go," Henning says, "but administering it effectively requires a structure that doesn't yet exist in Germany."

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