Germany Chips Away at 'Academic Feudalism'

BERLIN--Any young German scientist hoping to carve out an academic career faces a daunting barrier: the notorious post-Ph.D. Habilitation requirement. To be eligible for tenure, young scholars are required to work for 6 years or longer as a kind of academic apprentice, dependent on a senior professor for support. Now, changes in research funding may mean the end for this centuries-old academic burden.

The Habilitation system is widely seen as a disincentive for young scientists to remain in academic research. The best young scholars are moving to academic positions abroad, where they do not suffer "the indignity of a system they consider feudal," says historian Lorraine Daston, who directs the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. A blue-ribbon committee of scientists and government officials advocated getting rid of the Habilitation last spring, arguing that Germany's academic research system should move toward the U.S. model, with "junior professor" slots replacing the Habilitation positions (Science, 21 April 2000, p. 413).

In keeping with that goal, last week Germany's central research foundation announced a new program of junior professorships that will provide independent support for young researchers. Beginning in the next few months, young scientists will be able to apply for 3-year support for their own research or group projects they head. At the same time, the country's major private science-funding body announced that it is starting a program of "research professorships." These grants will fund university positions for researchers under age 35.

But this change may come too late for those who are already at a relatively advanced stage of their Habilitation: Today, German academics are usually 44 by the time they are eligible for tenure.

With additional reporting by Janina Wellman.

Related sites

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's public science finance organization
The Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, Germany's private science finance organization