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Reinhard Hüttl was dismissed last month by the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

DAVID AUSSERHOFER

Top German geoscientist fired after police raid, faces allegations of financial crimes

Reinhard Hüttl had risen to the very top of German science. The soil scientist was head of the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), where he commanded a staff of more than 1200 and a €95 million budget. He was vice president of acatech, Germany’s engineering-focused national academy, and vice president of the nation’s most prestigious state academy, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW). His advice even reached Chancellor Angela Merkel—for example as a government adviser with the Council on Bioeconomy.

That world has come crashing down. Last month, police raided Hüttl’s homes and offices in Berlin and Potsdam on suspicion of fraud, breach of trust, and illegal acceptance of benefits by a public official—offenses that can be punished with fines or prison sentences. On 26 January, the GFZ board dismissed him, saying it “no longer sees any basis for a trustworthy cooperation.” The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which finances the bulk of the GFZ budget, terminated his contract the same day.

Hüttl denies the allegations and has said he would sue BMBF for unlawful dismissal, although labor courts in Berlin and Potsdam said on 16 February that no lawsuits have been filed. Meanwhile, the high-profile case is turning heads in science policy circles across the nation. “Science is damaged severely if it is perceived to be led by interests and to be corrupt,” says Klaus Gärditz, who specializes in science law at the University of Bonn.

The case is also raising questions about whether Germany’s many science academies have adequate policies for avoiding conflicts of interest and disclosing financial ties. In German science, the boundaries of what is acceptable are not clear, says Peter Weingart, a sociologist of science at Bielefeld University and long-term BBAW colleague of Hüttl’s. “The idea that members would declare conflicts of interest didn’t occur to us.” (Weingart adds that he believes the accusations against Hüttl—who stepped back from his BBAW vice presidency on 1 February—are unfounded.)

Hüttl’s troubles began in October 2020, when GFZ revealed in a statement that an anonymous whistleblower had alleged that Hüttl had violated financial compliance rules. He was relieved from his duties “until further notice,” and was banned from entering GFZ premises and using its resources. The center turned the case over to the Brandenburg state public prosecutor office responsible for fighting corruption, which says it is also investigating two other suspects. Hüttl, however, is the prime suspect.

The prosecutor’s office has not yet decided whether to charge Hüttl, and declined to provide specific information about the case. But according to information in a search warrant, first reported in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag and reviewed by Science, the possible crimes are diverse. Hüttl is alleged to have billed private trips and meals to GFZ, acatech, and the Centre for Energy Technology Brandenburg (CEBra), a research institute affiliated with the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, where Hüttl held a professorship. In a statement to Science, Hüttl says he doesn’t currently have access to seized documents, but that he’ll prove those allegations wrong.

The search warrant also alleges that Hüttl illegally accepted options on shares and reimbursements from Novihum Technologies, a German company seeking to make rich soil from brown coal, in return for help securing grant money for the company. The accusations are unfounded, Hüttl says.

A third set of allegations relates to two organizations linked to China’s state-owned electrical grid, the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO) and the Global Energy Interconnection Research Institute (GEIRI), which both lobby for a green worldwide supergrid. The warrant alleges that GEIDCO or GEIRI paid for a private tourist trip to China for Hüttl, and paid $50,000 to CEBra annually since 2018, in return for Hüttl’s influence and contacts. Science has seen a document Hüttl apparently sent to GEIDCO that lists 41 activities in 2019 as “contribution to GEIDCO,” including meetings with China’s ambassador to Germany, members of BMBF, and the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

In 2018, GEIDCO head Liu Zhenya, who was head of the state grid company for many years, was elected as a member of acatech. Hüttl and acatech didn’t respond to questions about who nominated Liu to the academy.

Hüttl denies working for GEIDCO or GEIRI, and says the payments to CEBra were for a science project that will eventually publish results. “I did not draw benefits,” he says. GEIDCO, GEIRI, and the state grid company did not reply to email inquiries. Acatech, CEBra, and Novihum declined to answer questions, referring to the ongoing investigation.

Public officials like Hüttl are allowed to do paid work on the side, but need permission from the institution where they are employed. Hüttl says GFZ was aware of his “diverse activities” and approved of them. But a BMBF spokesperson says it had no knowledge of Hüttl’s activities for GEIDCO. Hüttl did not provide a list of his side jobs in response to a request from Science, even though he has publicly stressed the importance of transparency in the past. “Politics and the public expect—and can expect—freedom of thought, a high degree of interconnectedness, and transparency from us,” Hüttl said at a 2010 event with Merkel.

Following Hüttl’s resignation, BBAW says it will soon ask members a set of questions, modeled on U.S. national academy rules, to identify potential conflicts of interest. “I think that the model of self-reporting, used up to now, does not meet the standard anymore,” says BBAW President Christoph Markschies, who took office with Hüttl in October 2020.

The affair may also lead to more scrutiny of conflicts relating to China. Recently, the United States has cracked down on foreign influence in science, even arresting researchers who failed to disclose funding from China. But European nations have largely ignored the issue. Sebastian Heilmann, a political scientist at the University of Trier, says European organizations should toughen up conditions for grants from countries like China, for example by requiring disclosure and setting clear rules for interactions. And research managers from publicly funded institutes shouldn’t consult for Chinese state-owned organizations, says Asena Baykal, of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, who studies cooperation with nondemocracies.

In the wake of the allegations, Hüttl has abandoned other positions. Acatech suspended him on his request, and he gave up his chairmanship of the European Council of Academies of Applied Sciences, Technologies and Engineering. But Hüttl remains on the supervisory board of the car manufacturer BMW. Earlier this month, he got a new job: leading EUREF Energy Innovation, a company developing hydrogen energy. On 3 February, the CEO of its parent company, real estate developer EUREF AG, put out a statement saying he was proud to have attracted a “renowned, excellent and active scientist.”