German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz will soon start formal talks to form new coalition government.

REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

A new Merkel-led government could be good news for German science

BERLIN—Forming a new German government has proved more difficult than it has been in decades, but the deadlock may well end with some good news for science. A blueprint for talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) contains an ambitious pledge to spend 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) on research, up from the current 2.9%. The paper also promises a 3% yearly increase in federal funding for research organizations such as the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association. The new round of coalition talks may start as early as Friday.

A so-called grand coalition government of the CDU, its smaller Bavarian sister party named CSU, and the SPD have been in power since 2013, but all three parties lost significant numbers of seats in last September’s elections, and none is eager to enter into another grand coalition. But initial talks between the CDU, the Green party, and the Free Democratic Party fell apart in November 2017, and the remaining options—a minority government or new elections—are even less appealing. On Sunday, delegates at an SPD party conference voted to start formal talks, based on a preliminary agreement drawn up by party leaders earlier this month.

The blueprint says that investing 3.5% of GDP in research—including funding from government and industry sources—is necessary for Germany to keep its edge in innovation. The increase would put Germany among the world leaders in scientific investment, on par with Japan and behind only South Korea and Israel. The document also pledges to continue federal funding for universities, which was prohibited until 2015, when a constitutional amendment brokered by the current coalition went into effect. (German public universities are run by the 16 Laender, or states.) 

The parties also agreed to new agricultural policies, some of which may be less popular among researchers, including a nationwide ban on planting genetically modified (GM) crops. Though it would have little practical impact because no GM crops are currently grown in Germany, a formal legal rejection in Europe’s biggest economy could carry considerable symbolic value.

The parties also agreed to reduce the use of the herbicide glyphosate “with the goal of ending its use as soon as possible.” Like GM crops, glyphosate is a contentious issue in both Germany and the European Union. German agriculture minister Christian Schmidt, a member of the CSU, cast a deciding vote in November 2017 to extend the herbicide’s license in the European Union, a move strongly opposed by environment minister Barbara Hendricks, a member of the SPD. The parties state that they want to develop an agricultural strategy that boosts biodiversity, with a special mention for measures that would safeguard insect populations, which some German studies suggest are in rapid decline.

The initial agreement was met with disappointment from researchers and activists hoping that Germany would step up its efforts to slow climate change. Germany won’t be able to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions (compared with 1990 levels) by 40% by 2020, the parties admit. However, they say the new government would redouble efforts to meet the 2030 goal of cutting emissions by 55%.

It isn’t clear which party might run the federal ministry for education and research the next 4 years. The current minister, Johanna Wanka, is a member of the CDU. But SPD member Hubertus Heil, who helped negotiate the initial deal, may have his eye on the job. He told reporters this week that the ministry is “close to the SPD’s heart.”