Gene-editing pioneer Emmanuelle Charpentier is a director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. A recent Max Planck Society report said there is a “bidding war” for female directors.

AP PHOTO/PETER STEFFEN

Do you want to direct a research institute? Germany’s Max Planck Society has hundreds of top jobs to fill

BERLIN—Erin Schuman and her husband Gilles Laurent left their jobs at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena a few years ago and moved their family, cat, and dog halfway across the globe to Frankfurt, Germany. It took some courage. She's American, he's French, and two of their daughters were in school; resettling in Europe was "certainly challenging," Schuman says.

But the move came with huge professional benefits. Schuman and her husband, both neuroscientists, moved to the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research as "directors," prestigious positions as the heads of large research groups that come with guaranteed funding until retirement and full academic freedom. They also had the opportunity to design a brand new lab. ("We worked with the architects to maximize the interactions and happiness of our colleagues," Schuman says.) The move turned out to be a "tremendously enriching experience."

Many scientists may soon have a similar chance. The Max Planck Society (MPG) recently took out ads in major scientific journals to recruit 20 new directors in fields ranging from astrophysics to terrestrial microbiology, in one of its biggest talent searches ever. Between now and 2030, roughly 200 of the 300 director posts at the 84 institutes will become vacant, says an MPG spokesperson. Many directors are coming up for retirement at the 20 institutes opened in the eastern part of the country after the German reunification in 1990, and so are many of their counterparts at older institutes in former West Germany.

For the society it marks a turning point: a chance to hire more women and more foreign researchers, and an opportunity to open up entirely new fields of research, because incoming directors can set their own course. (There are also plans to launch completely new institutes on cybersecurity and the origins of life.) But it's also a huge challenge. Finding directors is a lengthy process, and competition from other institutions seeking top talent—especially women—is fierce. And some argue that the society should use the opportunity to rethink some of its traditions.

Founded in 1948, MPG has a €1.8 billion annual budget and is Germany's leading research powerhouse. The Nature Publishing Index ranks it as the fourth largest contributor to high-quality research in the world; its researchers have won 18 Nobel Prizes.

Most of the institutes are led jointly by three to five directors who each also run their own research departments. As an MPG director, "You have an incredible liberty to research what you want, even changing your field if you like," says Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine as a director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen in 1995. There are periodic evaluations, but a poor result means losing only a fraction of your funding, says Schuman, who previously held one of the plum positions in U.S. science: as an investigator funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute on a 5-year contract. "I did not realize how the renewal clock of 5 years dissuaded me from going for risky ideas until I became a [Max Planck] director," she says.

When a director leaves or retires, MPG doesn't just look to "fill a certain slot," says Jürgen Renn, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science here. Instead it seeks excellent scientists and reshapes the institute's mission around them, sometimes altering it completely. When the directors of the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena left within a few years of each other, for instance, prominent economists proved hard to lure to that city. So MPG in 2014 refashioned it into the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, which has since done pioneering work on the history of plague.

The hiring process is arduous. Traditionally, an institute's current directors identify potential candidates, who are then reviewed by outside referees. (The recent ads were a new addition.) Settling on a new director can take years. The society currently fills about 10 positions a year, so the rush of openings may be a challenge. And the "explosion of research at universities all around the globe" means that competition "is a lot more intense," says U.S. economist David Audretsch, a former director at the Jena institute.

Finding women is especially hard. The number of female directors has gone up from 4.5% in 2005 to about 15% today; MPG aims to reach 18% by 2020. (Among recent catches is gene-editing pioneer Emmanuelle Charpentier.) But a recent MPG report mentioned an international "bidding war" for senior female talent. To expand the pool, female scientists should receive much more support early in their careers, Renn says. One effort is MPG's Lise Meitner excellence program, launched late last year, which will establish up to 10 new research groups led by women every year. Recruiting directors at a younger age could also help, Schuman says: "I know this younger pool has lots of qualified and amazing women who can join our ranks."

Attracting international talent is another challenge. Under Germany's federal system, MPG institutes are spread around the country, from big cities like Berlin or Munich all the way to places such as Plön, a small lakeside resort in the north, that are less attractive to foreigners who want an international school or an airport close by.

The biggest drawback of MPG institutes is their "outdated" isolation from universities, says Thomas Südhof, a biochemist and Nobel laureate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was an MPG director in the 1990s but left after falling out with Hubert Markl, then MPG's president. "Science is a team effort and it's important who you meet in the hallway or in the cafeteria," Südhof says. "The Max Plank Society would profit enormously if they integrated their institutes directly into universities." Schuman says he has a point, but warns that integration might lead to a "class system" within universities that favors Max Planck appointees. MPG is trying another solution: bringing institutes in the same city together in campuslike clusters.

As to filling the wave of new director posts, "I think we should dare to be riskier," Schuman says. "We should not be afraid of failing, but rather expect that some failures will accompany our riskier choices, which could lead to game-changing discoveries." In other words, MPG may just need a bit more of the courage it takes for an individual scientist to pull up stakes and move their lab and family to another continent.