Research in Germany By Volker Zapf
The structure of the German research landscape and the political course set for the future.
© Lise Gagne - iStockphoto.comWith the childish inquisitiveness of three-year-olds, Philipp, Leo and Lara are carefully examining everything from a grain of sand to an ant at the "research station" of a Munich day-care centre. If they retain their interest in research over the next 20 or 30 years, one would hope they will find research opportunities in Germany that promote and support their quest for new knowledge.
Initiative for Excellence, Higher Education Pact and Joint Initiative for Research and InnovationThe efforts of the German government to maintain and create favourable structures for research are undeniable: on 4th July 2009, the government and the federal states agreed a new package for the Higher Education Pact, the Initiative for Excellence and the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation - approximately 18 billion euros will be made available to support the German research landscape until 2019.
The Initiative for Excellence was founded in 2005 in order to positively influence the entire research landscape by specifically promoting individual outstanding universities and institutes. The Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation on the other hand means higher subsidies for the larger German research associations (Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, Helmholtz Association, Max Planck Society and Leibniz Association) and for the German Research Foundation (DFG) as the central funding organisation for research.
Whether this will achieve the desired success is currently open to speculation - only the next ten to twenty years will tell. The government initiatives are a political statement of intent to increase the significance of research in Germany and its importance in modern society.
The three pillars of German researchThe research system in Germany is fundamentally divided into three parts: Research of course firstly takes place at universities and at the academies of science, and secondly at research institutes and centres operated by or affiliated with the large German research societies. These two areas are directly managed by the public sector. Thirdly, an important contribution is made by the research and development departments of private companies. While mathematical, scientific and technical research in principle occurs at all three locations, research in the humanities and social sciences is conducted mainly at universities and academies. At universities, DFG-funded research training groups and collaborative research centres can promote work on particular topics in the short term, and long-term research projects such as editions, lexicons or similar are generally sited with academies; however, the number of independent research institutes - such as the "Stiftung Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung" (Hamburg Institute for Social Research) or the "Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren Berlin" (Centres for Advanced Studies in the Humanities) - is very small. In the private sector, research in the humanities and social sciences effectively does not exist. The career opportunities for research roles in the humanities and social sciences are accordingly limited - to professorships and assistant posts at universities and employment at academies.
The situation in the natural and engineering sciences is rather different: here, Diplom or doctoral theses can be completed in collaboration with private companies such as BMW or EADS. Universities and research institutes can also financially co-operate with companies and thus improve their options - and the career opportunities for researchers.
Foreign researchers in GermanyItalian philosopher Paolo D'Iorio, winner of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's Sofja Kovalevskaja Award (which recognises excellent international young scientists and includes a research stay in Germany), would often have wished for greater flexibility with regard to funding, but has never regretted his decision to conduct his research in Germany. The Institute of Computer and Network Engineering at the TU Braunschweig in turn currently employs 33 research assistants from a wide range of countries; over 70 percent of them are paid from third-party funds. This phenomenon may also be considered an example applicable to other German research institutes: on the one hand, the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation strengthens German research institutions through temporary third-party funding; for young academics on the other hand this means they can be offered only temporary contracts, the extension of which depends on the availability of those third-party funds.
Nonetheless, the Braunschweig institute would not advise researchers from abroad against working in Germany: the excellent training afforded by project work generally leads to subsequent employment in industry, they say. The German private sector too offers career opportunities for dedicated researchers: the economic crisis is creating greater pressure to innovate, which is in turn bringing new life to research and development departments.
And if a balanced mixture of third-party funds and reliable long-term internal budgets can be established for public research institutes, ultimately everyone benefits: the institutions, German and international researchers, and thus the entire research landscape in Germany.