Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Scientists in the Civil Service

Albert Einstein loved his job as a civil servant at the patent office in Bern. After years of studying, he welcomed the reliable income and job security. According to fellow physicist and Nobel Laureate Emilio Segre in the biography he wrote on Einstein, Einstein even recommended young scientists to look for such easy jobs so that they would have time to develop their own ideas and skills.

More than 30 federal government-owned institutions are engaged in research in Germany. Their umbrella organisation-- Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Ressortforschungseinrichtungen ( Working Group of Departmental Research Institutions)—represents more than 20,000 employees with permanent civil servant contracts.* When employees with temporary contracts are included, these research institutions employ more than 20% of German scientists. Together these institutes have an annual budget greater than €1.5 billion, which is more than the entire budget of the 80 research institutes of the Max–Planck Society.

These institutes offer roles for scientists that are a combination of undertaking applied research, generating scientific data for legislation, and giving expert advice to policy makers. Although research in these institutes must follow governmental policy needs and permanent positions have been reduced in recent years, such roles offer a challenging career for a scientist who wishes to work in a field relevant to the country’s communal needs.

Today's German civil service needs natural scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Physicists work in agencies like the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt ( Physical-Technical Federal Agency), developing applications to calibrate measurements like the wave length of lasers, and the gravitation constant, or in the Bundesamt für Materialprüfung ( Federal Agency for Materials Examination), which also employs many materials scientists and chemists. Environmental and health agencies like in the Umweltbundesamt ( Environmental Agency) or the Bundesforschungsanstalt für Ernährung und Lebensmittel ( Federal Research Agency for Nutrition and Food) largely employ chemists and biologists. At the Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe ( Federal Institute for Geological Sciences and Natural Resources) geologists explore the groundwork of the geological resources and meteorologists typically work in weather, aviation, and maritime offices. Information technology experts are increasingly sought after by civil services and ministries in order to meet the growing need for e-government applications as well as for internal and external communications.

But research under the roof of a ministry or a local authority is rarely an end in itself. The duty of civil research institutes is to deliver independent and verified data that is used by policy makers. These institutes also play a part in the infrastructural improvement of the state and offer administrative services like buildings inspection, laboratory authorisation, standard regulations, and environmental monitoring. Within this framework, the agencies and their scientists are relatively free in the choice of their research fields. “We have endless possibilities to really get to the bottom of things,” says Dr. Thorsten Schrader, who has been working as a physicist on high frequency measurement techniques at the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt for 10 years.

Besides ensuring the continuity of regulatory tasks that have a legal framework, such as long-term monitoring of environmental parameters, scientists working in these institutes have to be capable of giving immediate advice to the governmental ministries in routine political work or during crisis situations such as an epidemic or natural catastrophe.

To undertake such duties effectively, civil scientists must communicate their research clearly. “Bureaucrats want a clear 'yes' or 'no,’” says Dr. Achim Günther (pictured left), chair of the section Chemists in Civil Service of the Society of German Chemists (GdCh) in Berlin. Günther explains that minor ambiguities in scientific data can be confusing to a non-specialist; thus, a scientist in the civil service has to be willing to give a judgment even if the scientific results may not be definitive.

An Insider View on Roles for Scientists in the Civil Service

To Dr. Hartmut Nies, Head of the marine chemistry section of the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency in Hamburg, a career as a scientist in the civil service means working at an interesting interface. "For me it is exciting to work both in scientific research and policy consultancy." In his agency, in particular "the involvement in international tasks is the most interesting." As legislation and policies in the European Union cross borders, civil-service scientists have to travel abroad attending conferences and working groups, and compare their findings internationally, sometimes even as guest researchers in a foreign country.

But research plans must follow policy needs. "Science in governmental organisations is strictly subordinated to the political and administrative goals of the government,” says Günther. However, he adds, “what sounds like a limitation can be a challenge for scientists.” Sven Altfelder (pictured right), a young geologist at the Federal Institute for Geological Sciences and Natural Resources in Hannover, agrees. “Within the framework of my duties--transport of harmful substances through the soils--I have a lot of creative freedom.” During the development of the legal framework for soil protection in Germany, Altfelder was asked to develop a simple method to measure and forecast the migration of harmful substances through soils.

Nevertheless, the research goals of the agencies can change depending on the latest needs driven by the government, or even by society. The work within the offices nowadays is organised into projects running from 1 to 3 years, although longer-term projects also exist. After a project is completed, researchers move on to a new project. During such a period, projects are continually evaluated--every one to three years--to see if the project is still relevant for the ministries. Such regular feedback means researchers at these institutes need to be flexible.

Collaborations with Academia

Scientists at federal agencies frequently embark on collaborations with academic institutions. This is not only important for scientific exchange, but also for the career development of their young scientists. For example, every fourth scientist (at least among the chemists, biologists, and agricultural scientists) employed in the research institutes of the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection has a teaching post or an honorary professorship at a university. Dr. Matthias Rütze from the Federal Agency for Forest and Timber says, "we have a very close co-operation with the university, offering lectures and seminars for its students. Our president is also a regular professor at the university."

A federal institution can offer research training opportunities, too. Some students work in civil service labs for their theses. After completing his undergraduate studies in electrical technology, Christian Lehrmann, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student at the Physical-Technical Federal Agency, was happy to get a temporary contract at the federal agency to concentrate on his choice research topic: explosion-protected propulsion machines. "Here I have much more freedom to decide myself on the direction of my research work,” he explains. "The technical infrastructure is much better than at any university, and I enjoy the really interdisciplinary atmosphere with colleagues from nearly all fields in physics and technology." Lehrmann is optimistic about his future career prospects and is open to one in research and one that could include policy. "Here I have better chances after my Ph.D. to stay on and maybe get a permanent job from my inside position, than I do at the university.

Getting a permanent position after his Ph.D. is exactly what happened to geologist Altfelder. In 1999, he joined the Federal Institute for Geological Sciences and Natural Resources’ own career programme for 5 years as a postdoc. At the time, 10 pre- and postdocs were appointed to work in specific departments, but they also had the chance to be exposed to other departments. Additionally, they got work experience in engineering offices and exploration companies for some months. After the end of the programme, Altfelder was one of the lucky seven to be chosen for a permanent contract.

The Federal Environmental Agency in Dessau, Germany.

Altfelder says there are advantages working in the civil service, compared to academia: “Here I have much more time to concentrate on my research than I would have at a university, where teaching costs a lot of time.” Still, he acknowledges that life as a civil-service scientist isn’t perfect. “Scientists must also be willing to accept the hierarchy in governmental bodies, which is quite present and stronger than at the university,” he says.

Important Attributes for Civil-Service Scientists

What types of scientist would suit the challenges of working for a federal research institute? Günther believes that "the ideal candidate for the scientific tasks in the civil service is the generalist. She or he should have a broad knowledge in her or his scientific field. It is also important to be open to acquiring additional knowledge needed for civil servants, e.g., knowledge in budgetary laws," he continues.

Günther sees communication skills as a prerequisite: "The ministerial staff never has time to read long academic-styled publications. Thus the scientists should be (able) to write very short communications pointing out sharply the advantages and disadvantages of a procedure or a fact on no more than a single page. The language has to be understandable for normal, educated people."

Future Prospects in the Civil Service

But it is also important to be aware, says Nies, that due to a decreasing governmental budget, new civil service jobs coming on stream will not have the level of security that the same posts in this sector previously had. "Staff reduction has been considerable during recent years," says Nies about the situation in his department of Marine Chemistry. "Within 5 years, our permanent staff was reduced by 20%." But Günther disagrees: "We moan a lot. It is true that the overall staff at all German governmental institutions has to be reduced at 1.5 % per year on average. But on the other side, the temporary project contracts rise steadily, being a kind of very prolonged probation for permanent employment contracts, which young scientists can achieve only in later stages of their careers.”

Altfelder, who was lucky to achieve his permanent employment quite early, is of the same opinion: “According to the rate, permanent positions are cut, but the temporary project positions are on the rise. These are mainly funded by third parties, and we are indeed encouraged to acquire more third party projects in cooperation with industry or funding agencies.”

The era when a job in the civil service gave Einstein free time to develop his special and general theories of relativity seems long gone. "Research for a Nobel Prize career nowadays of course is unlikely to be performed at a civil research institute,” says Günther. But despite this limitation, scientific work in the institutes of the civil service can not only provide a broad spectrum of research possibilities, but also offer the challenging experience to actively play a role in the political decision processes.

Further links (in German only):

Hanns J. Neubert is a freelance writer based in Hamburg, Germany .