International careers report: Germany—in pursuit of excellence

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Although Germany has a rich scientific tradition, German universities have fallen behind in global research rankings. A new initiative by the federal government aims to change that perception and offer thousands of job opportunities to young scientists.

Low rankings

That need has become particularly obvious in German universities. "If you look at international rankings, German universities are far behind," says Johannes Dichgans, professor of general neurology at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research. "Only Munich is among the first 50." In science only Heidelberg featured among the top 50 in the world last year.

Why do German universities rank so low in science? "In my judgment, the main reasons are structure and financing," Dichgans continues. "And German departments usually have only one head and no other independent positions, so that young scientists can't work independently." Peter Comba, vice rector for information management at the University of Heidelberg, agrees – and adds another reason. "Our universities are underfinanced," he says. "And there's no real differentiation among universities."

Indeed, several observers blame German universities' low achievement in science on an emphasis on equality among institutes of higher education, in both the number of subjects taught and researched and the amount of government financing. "There's a lack of specialization at German universities; each institution has a tendency to evenly cover as many scientific areas as possible," declares Andreas Herz, spokesman for Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience. "Germany is too small to create and support excellence and critical mass in 80 universities," adds Detlev Ganten, director of Berlin Charité Medical University. "We will have to accept that a few regions, cities, and universities have greater potential than others to develop into internationally competitive centers."

In addition, German higher education frequently fails to focus on interdisciplinary studies, which form the core of much modern research. "Science today is fast paced and interdisciplinary," says Svante Pääbo, professor of genetics and evolutionary anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "The challenge for Germany is to maintain its traditional areas of excellence while quickly fostering new areas of research." Boehringer Ingelheim's Pairet makes a similar point. "We sometimes see a lack of sufficient interaction between disciplines," he says. "Increasingly, young scientists go abroad to broaden their scope and to find positions with solid financial support, which is increasingly difficult to find in German universities and institutes."

Changing the perception

Jochen Feldmann, vice president for research at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU), suggests a way to change the perception of German academic science. "Germany can strengthen its scientific and technological productivity and visibility only by a more focused financial support of clearly identified centers of excellence," he says. "The entire process of identifying and supporting scientific centers of excellence must exclusively be driven by the goal that each center represents one of the worldwide leading research clusters in its respective field."

That provides a prescription for the new federal competition. "The aim of the Excellence Initiative competition is to strengthen our universities significantly – to make them more competitive and to position them more favorably at international level," Bulmahn explains. "Our aim is to sharpen the profile of our universities in order to develop leading universities with internationally regarded research strengths. For this reason, the Excellence Initiative is not just about extra funding for clusters of excellence and graduate schools; its innovative core is our additional support for a selected number of the best universities that present further innovative and promising research strategies."

Funding nevertheless represents the core of the initiative. To achieve its goals, the competition will provide up to one million euros ($1.23 million) apiece for 40 new graduate schools that will offer excellent research conditions for doctoral students and give them more independence than they have traditionally enjoyed in Germany. The competition will also provide up to 6.5 million euros ($8 million) annually to so-called clusters of excellence. The third part of the competition will fund the development of new centers of research excellence within universities that include innovative measures for promoting young researchers; it will provide up to 21 million euros annually per university, including graduate schools and clusters of excellence.

Bulmahn emphasizes that the competition will preserve Germany's strong heritage in research. "We're starting from a sound basis with our system of research and innovation," she says. "It is one of the most effective in the world, and the Excellence Initiative will enhance this. Resources and potential will be brought together. The initiative transcends the strict division between university and non-university research that is typical of Germany. Competition will break through these hard boundaries – and that is most important if we are to succeed.

Applications for the competition

The call for applications to the competition went out in July 2005, with a view to making the first grants next fall. To minimize political input, the DFG will judge the applications in collaboration with the German Science Council. "The DFG has many years of experience with the promotion of leading-edge research and enjoys an excellent international reputation," Bulmahn notes. "Assessments will be carried out by internationally recognized experts with many years of experience abroad in research, college management, or business."

The DFG's Müller outlines the ways in which the new graduate schools will be able to provide greater independence and better opportunities for doctoral students. "They will do so by integrating the doctoral theses into a comprehensive, outstanding research program; by actively involving doctoral students in a structured study program; by establishing transparent and innovative advisory structures; and by providing incentives to encourage mobility and networking in the international scientific community," she says. "Hence, the time it takes to receive a Doctorate will be shortened. The age at which students are conferred their Doctorates will be lower. And the overall appeal of the Doctorate will become greater."

The clusters of excellence envisioned by the initiative will also play a critical role in increasing the profile of German academic science in specific fields. "The best possible networking between universities, research institutes, and business will be promoted and new scientific talent supported by the expansion of structured doctoral programs," Bulmahn explains. "Excellent funding of interdisciplinary research should set developments in motion that will create internationally recognized leading universities." The clusters, Müller adds, "will attract young scientists, from abroad as well as Germany. We expect the initiative to bring in young talent from around the globe."

Speaking about the third part of the competition, LMU's Feldmann sketches out the bases of the centers of academic research excellence envisioned by the initiative. "A center of excellence at a university must integrate the most successful research groups from other research institutes, such as the Max Planck Institutes, and from industry, creating an efficient local network with a coherent research goal," he explains. "This integrating task is one of the major challenges in developing true centers of excellence."

Potential problems

The initiative will inevitably face problems. "The creation of centers of excellence may be a way to foster flexibility and interdisciplinarity," says Pääbo of the Max Planck Institutes. "However, this depends on whether they manage to break down hierarchical structures and traditional divisions between departments and between universities and other research institutions. To my mind, the major challenge is to break down divisions between research institutions and to create a system that allows smaller and more flexible research groups to flourish."

The Bernstein Center's Herz pinpoints another issue, specifically related to universities chosen as centers of excellence. "There is a certain risk that two parallel but mutually dependent administrations will emerge within each of the top universities – one for the excellence programs and one for the weaker departments and general university programs," he warns. "This may cause internal frictions and increase the overall bureaucratic burden."

Ganten of Berlin Charité points out the difficulty of overcoming what he calls "the exaggerated federalism and egotism" of the 16 German states. "The federal government has few possibilities to influence German state universities except for awarding research grants," he comments. Institutions can act in an equally parochial manner. "Unfortunately, some of the research organizations also follow more institutional than strategic lines of thought," Ganten continues. "This particularism, and sometimes egotism, of the various institutions needs to be overcome in favor of a more strategic national and international orientation and competitiveness."

On the other hand, Boehringer Ingelheim's Pairet worries that increased federal influence on research might create new problems. "The federal administration should avoid the natural trend of too tight regulation and control," he says. "Setting guidelines for research and defining ethical standards is meaningful. But overregulation to which we sometimes tend in Germany reduces research productivity too much."

Universal responsibility

As Müller of the DFG sees it, everyone involved in German science has a responsibility to help make the Excellence Initiative work. "Government on both the federal and state level must step up to the plate and show their commitment," she says. "Administrators must create a level playing field, and academics must come to the game prepared to collaborate. And industry must find new ways of interacting with academia. Politicians, researchers, and administrators alike must cooperate to create the best possible hothouse in which increasingly international, complex, and interdisciplinary science can thrive and bring about a healthy crop of brilliant and motivated young scientists."

Fortunately, the country doesn't lack precedents. In 2001, the DFG began a program to set up academic research centers. "The thematic foci are to incorporate a high degree of interdisciplinary cooperation and to network with other research institutions [such as local high technology businesses]," Müller explains. "The centers have to enhance the research profile of the whole university."

To date, the DFG has set up six research centers. They focus on marine geosciences (in Bremen); functional nanostructures (Karlsruhe); experimental biomedicine (Würzburg); mathematics for key technologies (Berlin); molecular physiology of the brain (Göttingen); and regenerative therapies (Dresden). They have already shown plenty of promise. "Indicators for the centers' success are not only excellent research results but also international recruitment, a massive oversubscription of their graduate training programs, and industry's heightened awareness of opportunities for collaboration and interaction," Müller says.

Some German universities have organized their own multidisciplinary centers. The Hertie Institute in Tübingen, for example, stemmed from a perceived need to apply a multidisciplinary approach to medical research. "I considered it absolutely necessary to merge clinical scientists and basic researchers in a single center and to create positions for specialists," Dichgans recalls. "We also wanted a building with lab space. While we were distributed in 12 places around the city, we now have it all in a single building."

The Institute has already notched one significant success. "We found a new gene for Parkinson's disease," Dichgans reports. "This is only possible if you have several disciplines in one place." The Institute also changed working patterns. "We increased mobility between the clinic and the Institute," Dichgans continues. "And research was done in the evening after patient work – completely new in Germany."

Multidisciplinary projects

The Bernstein Center in Berlin also concentrates closely on multidisciplinary projects. "Biological systems are characterized by nonlinearities and feedback on many spatial and temporal scales," Herz explains. "Understanding the resulting complexity is not possible with heuristic approaches, but rather requires a thorough data analysis, detailed quantitative modeling, and guiding theoretical concepts. Close collaboration between our experimentalists and theoreticians provides a vital basis for this enterprise."

During the past two years, meanwhile, LMU has undergone its own reorganization. "With this process, named "LMUInnovativ," LMU has achieved on a university scale what Germany now plans on a national scale," Feldmann says. "It has initiated enthusiastic discussions between the disciplines about common research strategies. Fascinating projects such as "brain and mind" have been set up by the disciplines of the natural sciences, medicine, and the humanities."

The multidisciplinary message has reached individual scientists. "As a result of LMUInnovativ, biologists, chemists, and physicists noticed that they needed more intense networking between their disciplines," Feldmann continues. "A common School of Science, instead of individual faculties, will now put into action the needs of researchers, teachers, and students of the natural sciences to face future research and technology challenges. The School of Science will also enable us to give answers to the more pressing questions that have become too complex to be answered by a single discipline."

The University of Heidelberg continually works on strengthening its research profile. "We have stringent efforts to stay at the top or advance in each of our subjects," Comba says. "Only a few years ago we started information sciences – a small, specialized department, but top in what it's doing. It's networked to mathematics and to scientific computing in physics, chemistry, and astronomy. We also build networks externally, to the Max Planck Institutes and other centers. And we're trying to set up interdisciplinary departments, such as one on human dignity."

In one trailblazing initiative, Heidelberg recognizes the need for good early instruction in science. "We think of our university as research oriented," Comba continues. "But we are trying to set up a school for educating high school teachers. If you want to have good scientists, you have to have good students. If you want to have good students at university, you have to have good students at high schools. We are planning to reorganize the training of high school teachers and already have programs to support them once they are out in the schools."

New management structure

Charité, the joint medical school of Berlin's Free University and Humboldt University, is also reorganizing. "The 128 current clinics and institutes will be transformed into 17 Charité Centers with a completely new management structure," Ganten says. "The goal is to create profit centers with a maximum of autonomy and decision making but closely monitored and controlled by the Charité board of directors with respect to the overall Charité strategy." The new centers include both research laboratories and clinics, some of which will act in part as profit oriented companies.

In addition to the Excellence Initiative, the federal government has concluded what it calls the Pact for Research and Innovation in Germany. "This guarantees nonuniversity research organizations a year-on-year increase in funding of at least 3 percent through to 2010," Bulmahn says. In combination, the two initiatives will help Germany to reach the goal, agreed to in 2000 by member countries of the European Union, of spending 3 percent of gross domestic product on R&D by 2010. Boehringer Ingelheim's Pairet outlines the wider implication of Germany's federal efforts in the context of European initiatives. "Combined with the European Innovative Medicine Initiative, which supports the development of European networks of excellence and public-private partnerships," he explains, "the federal initiatives should revitalize biopharmaceutical research in Europe."

Nonuniversity institutions have also started to participate in collaborative ventures. "We are already structurally integrated with the University of Leipzig, for example, in that we run a transgenic animal facility together," Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology says. "We will take an active part in the development of approaches that focus on the interdisciplinary study of higher cognitive function from an evolutionary as well as an ontogenic perspective."

Commercial organizations also recognize the need to cooperate across institutions and disciplines. "We foster broad thinking across therapeutic areas and scientific disciplines," Pairet says. "We also foster collaborations with academic research and biotech companies. We see it as important to integrate enabling technologies as a complement – not a substitute – to established and validated technologies."

The young beneficiaries

Who will benefit most from Germany's new approaches to research? "The excellence programs are a first important step to attract the best young scientists from all over the world to Germany," Herz says. Ganten takes a similarly optimistic view. "I definitely hope that the development of centers of excellence with better supported research, improved technology transfer, fewer regulations, and the proximity of flourishing new businesses will create new job opportunities in research and teaching, as well as in technology-driven businesses," he says. And Dichgans sees the entire effort leading to a surge in well-trained scientists. "At the moment," he points out, "we face a diminishing tendency to become a scientist. We hope by way of better education and creating new positions for young and independent people to make the field more attractive."

That outcome will, of course, benefit the country as a whole. "The Excellence Initiative will improve the international competitiveness of German universities," Bulmahn says. "Through it, we also want to strengthen Germany as a center of scientific activity in the long term."

German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it best: "The scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity," he wrote in his Essay on Experimentation. Unfortunately, German academic scientists haven't had enough to publicize in recent years. "We have excellent, internationally respected research institutes outside the universities, and we have many good universities," says Edelgard Bulmahn, federal minister of science and education. "What we lack, however, are leading research universities with a strong international reputation." Marion Müller, director of Berlin office of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG, Germany's equivalent of the United States National Science Foundation), agrees. "We need to raise the profile of research in Germany's chronically underfunded universities," she says. "We need to encourage cooperation between universities and nonuniversity institutions."

As its vehicle for doing so, the federal government has set up an "Excellence Initiative" competition. Conducted by the DFG and the German Science Council, it aims to strengthen German universities and to make them more competitive in a global context by supporting new graduate schools and dedicated centers of excellence. All told, Müller says, "The initiative will potentially create between 5,000 and10,000 jobs for young scientists."

The federal government isn't alone in overseeing new initiatives. Individual universities, research institutes, and companies have started their own efforts to improve the output and quality of their research and, especially, to encourage young scientists to stay in Germany and persuade those who have gone abroad to return. Observers see those steps as essential to safeguard the country's economic future. "In a country like Germany where natural resources are scarce, we have no other choice than a knowledge based economy," says Michel Pairet, head of research for Boehringer Ingelheim Germany. "We have always relied on innovative masterminds, and in future we will increasingly need to do so."

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