Research in Germany
Research is a key priority for politics and industry in Germany
Research is gaining more and more importance for Germany as an industrial location. Where does research take place, what are the most important research fields, and what opportunities does Germany offer international researchers?
Significance of research in Germany
Every year Germany invests around 2.9 per cent of its GDP in research and development, and the trend is increasing. This means that, in the OECD comparison, Germany is considerably above the 2.3 per cent average. For example, in 2015 central and regional government spent 24.8 billion euros on research and development, while industry invested 58.2 billion. The federal budget alone pours around 9 billion euros annually into non-university research institutes and institutions promoting research (e.g. German Research Foundation (DFG), Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association). Moreover, the federal government has pledged to increased this amount by three per cent each year.
As part of their excellence strategy, central and regional government spend half a billion euros annually on cutting-edge university research. The aim of the excellence strategy is to establish specific German universities as international centres of top-level research. It promotes both clusters of excellence in research related to specific, internationally competitive scientific issues, and universities that demonstrate excellence in their overall strategic direction.
Research is also highly regarded by the German general public. The high level of interest in research findings can be seen in the wide diversity of scientific features in print media, television and radio, and on the internet. Moreover, it is not only the connection between research, innovation and economic growth that is presented. Research findings from the social sciences and humanities also receive media coverage.
Most important research fields and sectors
In all branches of knowledge, special attention is given to fundamental research. However, the transfer of knowledge to industry and other social sectors is gaining ever increasing importance.
Through their own research programmes, the Federal Ministry of Economics and Federal Research Ministry target their funding at branches of knowledge that they regard as particularly relevant for German industry and society. With its Horizon 2020 programme, the European Union also targets its support at research projects that could have a positive impact on the economic growth in the EU.
At the same time, there is an increasing tendency for research projects to no longer be financed via a research institute’s own budget, but through third-party funds. At higher education institutions, more than half of all financial support for research comes from public or private third-party sponsors.
Obtaining third-party funding can therefore be seen as an indicator of the significance a subject area possesses for politicians and the academic community itself.
In a comparison of individual subject areas, engineering scores the highest level of success in securing third-party funds. Here the fields of energy research and technology, and information and communication technologies, are especially well supported. The life sciences, in particular health research and healthcare management, are also successful in securing third-party funding. However, it is important to remember that humanities and social science research projects are not usually as cost-intensive as projects in the natural sciences or engineering.
Public third-party funding 2014–16 according to subject areas
Direct R&D project funding from federal government
In Germany there are 428 higher education institutions that carry out research to a significantly large extent within the higher education sector, of which 106 are universities.
Additional research activity takes place at non-university research institutions, i.e. public institutions that only carry out research. These include the numerous institutes of the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association, the Leibniz Association and the Max Planck Society, as well as the academies of sciences.
In addition to this there are several research institutes belonging to central or regional government, such as the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the Robert Koch Institute, the German Meteorological Office (DWD) or the Institute for Employment Market and Career Research, all of which research on behalf of political and administrative bodies.
However, the main employers are companies engaged in research – they provide more than 60 per cent of all research jobs.
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Research and development in German industry
Industry’s share of the expenditure on research and development (R&D) in Germany is very high – two thirds. In their conviction that ‘innovation and growth go hand in hand’, many companies constantly increase their R&D investments. Particularly in knowledge-based industries, such as car manufacture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and the chemical industry (including pharmaceuticals), companies are equipped with outstanding R&D departments and offer job applicants excellent career conditions. According to European Commission data, Volkswagen, Daimler, Bosch, BMW, Siemens and Bayer are the top R&D companies in Germany – they alone invest over 40 billion euros annually in research and development. Vacancies in these companies are often advertised internationally. English-language job advertisements are also to be found on their respective web pages.
An important organisation for supporting knowledge transfer to industry is the German Federation of Industrial Research Associations (AiF).
R&D expenditure by industry and numbers employed according to sector, 2016
Motor vehicle manufacture
21.9 billion euros
9.9 billion euros
5.7 billion euros
4.5 billion euros
3.9 billion euros
Source: Association for the Promotion of Science and Humanities in Germany
Internationality is seen as a valuable asset at universities and other research institutions in Germany. It is evidence that the institution in question enjoys high regard even beyond the nation’s borders, or perhaps may even belong in the international top league. For this reason, many positions are also advertised internationally. In addition, various academic organisations provide a number of funding programmes that enable doctoral students or postdocs to work in Germany.
Of the 387,000 academic or artistic staff working in German universities in 2016, almost one in eight came from abroad. Most of them came from non-EU countries. At institutions devoted purely to research, the proportion is even higher. At the Max Planck Institutes, for example, four out of ten scientists have a nationality other than German.
Researchers who come from non-EU countries normally need an entry visa. The international offices of the universities can provide further information.
Foreign academics at the largest non-university research institutions, 2016
Most universities and research institutions are publicly financed, and receive a basic financial package from their supporters. The universities use these basic funds for teaching, administration and their own research projects. Institutions devoted purely to research also finance part of their research from them, as well as their administration. By securing third-party funding, they can carry out additional research projects. These third-party projects have now become an indispensable feature of the research scene, and four out of ten academic staff are involved with such projects. Since third-party funds have to be acquired in competition with other research projects, they are seen as proof of academic excellence.
The most important third-party sponsor for universities is the German Research Foundation (DFG), which is primarily financed through funds from central and regional government. In 2016 it funded around 30,000 research projects with a total of 3.1 billion euros. This means that it supplied a third of all the third-party funds that were granted in that year. An additional 27 per cent of funds came from specific funding programmes of the Federal Ministry of Economics and the Federal Research Ministry. Commercial industry ranks third with 20 per cent of funds, followed by the European Union and foundations such as the Volkswagen Foundation.
Fellowships are also an option for financing a research stay. The most important grant-awarding bodies include the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions of the European Commission, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
Many universities have a third-party funding agent or advice centres for research funding, which also advise international academics.
Most important third-party sponsors of research projects at universities, 2016