Reorganizing Research

Germany's research funding is currently undergoing dramatic changes: Program-orientated funding will soon replace the current financing of individual institutions in the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft ( HGF), the largest German research organization outside universities. With ?1.43 billion (DM 2.8 billion) in 2002, the HGF budget makes up 10% of total public expenditure of the German Federal and Länder governments on research, or one-quarter of the budget of the Federal ministry for education and research (BMBF).

To facilitate this reform, 15 German large-scale research institutions--the "Helmholtz centers"--have recently joined together to establish a registered society. The HGF's reform is directed at improving the efficiency of research and increasing cooperation among individual HGF member institutions. "With program-orientated funding of the HGF, we are creating a new financing system to strengthen competition, flexibility, and the orientation toward performance and results," says Federal research minister Edelgard Bulmahn.

The present system, in which the financial backers--the Federal and Länder (the German states) research ministries--exercise detailed budgetary oversight, will be replaced by a new system, in which the ministries have just general oversight control. In addition, scientific cooperation among HGF member institutions, universities, and industry will be intensified.

The 15 Helmholtz centers (see map) include institutions as different as the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung (AWI) in Bremerhaven, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, the Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Cologne.

In the future funding system, the Federal and Länder governments will set only the overall scientific goals within the six long-term fields of research of health, traffic and space, material structures, Earth and environment, energy, and key technologies. Within each of these broad areas, the Helmholtz centers will develop appropriate scientific programs designed to meet the government-established goals. As a rule, several member institutions have to be involved for 5 years to receive funding.

The senate, an advisory board consisting of 22 appointed representatives of science, policy, and industry, will play an important role in the future strategies of the HGF. Together with external national and international experts, the senate will examine the submitted program applications scientifically and strategically and will assess the competition for funding. "Health" and "traffic and space" will be the first research areas to be evaluated in 2002; "energy," "Earth and environment," "structure of matter," and "key technologies" will follow in 2003 and 2004.

Based on the evaluation, the senate will establish priorities for the programs and give recommendations for funding to the Federal and Länder governments. On 11 December, the HGF senate will meet for the first time to elect its president and decide on the first steps for the program-orientated financing system.

"An important change is the attempt to control the outcome of individual research programs," says Rainer Paulenz, administrative director at AWI, with regard to program-orientated funding: "In the future, more attention will be paid to publications and whether the scientific goals are reached within the intended time." Representatives of several HGF centers expect that the new funding system will influence management of their institutions: "Program-orientated funding will require a strategic analysis of research topics," says Thomas Gazlig of the Gesellschaft für Biotechnologische Forschung (GBF) in Braunschweig. "Research institutions will have to consider their priorities even more thoroughly in the future."

The new funding system does not lay down any special programs for postdocs or doctoral students, but the Federal and Länder ministries have defined the fostering of young academics as a strategic criterion for the evaluation of the HGF's research programs. That's nice in theory, but it remains to be seen how competition-controlled funding will positively influence the situation of postdocs and doctoral students at the HGF member institutions. Many representatives of HGF centers are unwilling to speculate about the impact of the reforms on young scientists before the first round of evaluation has taken place and they have gained some experiences with the new financing system. "In my opinion, the structural changes within the HGF will have no or only minor effects on the work of young academics at DESY," says Ties Behnke, staff scientist at DESY.

The issue of young scientists is relevant because the HGF centers are already an important incubator for them, many of whom are engaged in temporary scientific projects. Klaus-Jürgen Riffelmann, a 35-year-old mechanical engineer who did his doctorate at the DLR and now works on solar thermal power generation, does not expect much change in his research project. But, like other young academics at HGF member institutions, he hopes that the reform will lead to a more intense cooperation between the individual centers: "Maybe we can discover fields to work on together in the future and find solutions faster in this way."

Others also expect that increased cooperation and communication due to the forthcoming network of institution-overlapping programs will improve opportunities for young researchers. For example, Bettina Bundszus of the Federal ministry for education and research (BMBF) expects that program-orientated funding will sharpen the HGF's image internationally: "This will further increase the attractiveness of the HGF for young academics in the future," she says. Cordula Tegen of the HGF at Bonn is also optimistic that the "fresh wind" will improve the situation. "In future, young scientists will have even more opportunities to join together with other competent colleagues and acquire a good scientific reputation in their fields of research," she says.

The effect of the reforms on young scientists might also depend on the value placed on the HGF centers' educational efforts during the program assessment procedure. Says AWI's Paulentz, "There could be a positive effect if the number and quality of doctoral students counts as one of the criteria for performance.

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