As a member of Germany’s parliament, Anja Karliczek was mostly known for her work on financial issues.

Ralf Hirschberger/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Merkel makes a surprise pick for German research minister

German Chancellor Angela Merkel isn’t known for her political surprises. But she managed a big one this week when she tapped Anja Karliczek, a 46-year-old lawmaker little known outside of party circles, as Germany’s next minister for education and research.

Even long-term observers of Germany’s science landscape were left asking, “Anja who?”

Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will have six ministers in a proposed new coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Current Minister of Education and Research Johanna Wanka had announced months ago that she intended to drop out. Hermann Gröhe, who had served as minister of health in the last Cabinet, was seen as a strong contender for the research post, but was shut out of Merkel’s fourth Cabinet.

Instead, the chancellor chose the little-known Karliczek. Trained as a banker, she worked as a hotel manager before being elected to the German Parliament in 2013. There, she worked mostly on finance issues. Unlike her three predecessors, all women, Karliczek has had little contact with research or education policy and has no Ph.D.

Reaction has been mixed. The daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung said the nomination sends the “wrong signal. … With Karliczek at the head, one has to wonder whether science and research still have the importance in German politics that they supposedly have—and that they should have.”

But others cautioned that her outsider status may still turn out to be an asset. “Maybe what’s needed now is a research minister who, when she meets the science managers of this country, asks them why things have to be done the way they are done now. And whether they couldn’t be done completely differently,” journalist and commentator Jan-Martin Wiarda wrote on the website Spektrum.de.

Karliczek’s nomination is widely seen as a political signal by Merkel. The new ministers are younger than those picked for previous Cabinets and are split evenly between men and women. And Karliczek belongs to the conservative wing of the powerful North Rhine-Westphalia CDU.

Merkel emphasized that Karliczek went through vocational training, an important pillar of Germany’s educational system, twice. She also completed an MBA through distance learning. “I am sure she will have a big heart for research as well,” Merkel said.

Karliczek is expected to have some money to play with. The coalition agreement promises an increase of 3% per year for research agencies such as the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres and the Max Planck Society as well as increasing research spending from 2.9% of gross domestic product to 3.5%. But first, the roughly 460,000 members of the SPD have to approve the coalition agreement. Members can vote by mail ballot until 2 March.

*Correction 27 February, 5:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the current percent of gross domestic product used for research spending.