German Centers Urged to Team Up

FRANKFURT--Germany's 16 national research centers are too isolated, 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. Instead of the existing block grants to individual facilities, the report calls for a U.S.-style funding model that emphasizes research programs that cut across many institutions.

The evaluation, released here today by the Science Council, adds the final piece of a 2-year comprehensive review of the entire German research system. In the new report, a 14-member panel that includes five non-German scientists 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 scientists.

Progress is being made, says Helmholtz president Detlev Ganten. He says that the centers already pool 5% of their budgets for competitive grants in strategic areas. And to figure out how to manage a revised funding system, the association is conducting "intensive negotiations" with the federal and state research ministries that provide the bulk of the centers' $2 billion annual funding. "For long-term research programs, we need longer-term budgeting and more flexibility," Ganten 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 like bacterial fermentation to studies on the genetic basis of infectious diseases. GBF is also planning to work more closely with other biomedical research centers. "National research institutes can't be islands or ivory towers," Balling says. "They have to become more competitive and more useful for other German researchers."

Related sites
Press release from the Science Council, in German
The full report as a PDF file, also in German
The Helmholtz Association, the organization of national labs