Tradition meets high technology: science in Germany
Science has always had a high priority in Germany. How did the scientific system in Germany develop from its beginnings in the 14th century until today and what are the most important fields of research?
History of science in Germany
Germany, the self-proclaimed “nation of poets and thinkers”, can look back on a long tradition of scientific research. The first German universities were established in the 14th and 15th century, such as in Cologne, Heidelberg and Leipzig. As was typically the case during the Middle Ages, there was a strong bond between universities and the church. The academic subjects taught there were usually theology, legal theory and medicine. Over the following centuries, many universities educated the administrators of the many principalities in particular, which existed within the region known as Germany today.
From the 17th century, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment ushered in a fundamental change within science itself and the scientific system. At the universities, the theological faculties lost their influence. New institutions, faculties and subjects were established, and academies were considered learned societies for the promotion of scientific fields. This was a development that occurred throughout Europe, including Germany. As industrialisation took hold, institutes of technology were established, such as in Braunschweig, Freiburg and Karlsruhe.
In 19th-century Prussia – a powerful kingdom within the German Confederation – the politician and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt was responsible for higher education. He was the brother of the polymath Alexander von Humboldt, and as an advocate of the Enlightenment, he propagated a new model of higher education, involving the integral combination of research and education. This Humboldtian model still guides higher education in Germany to this day and has also had an impact on higher education abroad.
In 1911, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded as an umbrella organisation dedicated to the advancement of fundamental sciences. Its aim was to cover the high financial expenses of scientific research and, against the backdrop of scientific progress particularly in the United States, to establish top, modern research institutes in Germany. After the Second World War, most of these institutes joined the renowned Max Planck Society.
The period of National Socialism from 1933 to 1945 had a dramatic effect on German science. Scientific fields were expected to support the abhorrent ideology of the Nazis. Many great researchers had to fear persecution and even worse. Many of them therefore fled to other countries. It took a while for the institutions of research and higher education to recover from that time and the associated loss of highly educated people.
After the war, science was seen as a means to move on and develop, in both East and West Germany. Additionally, there was fierce competition between both states, which also played out in the realm of science and technology. This actually resulted in driving progress on both sides.
The 1960s in particular brought a huge transformation within the West German education system. Access to higher education was opened up to more disadvantaged social strata, and many new universities were established, including the universities of Konstanz, Bochum and Bremen.
Following the political transformation in East Germany, a number of professors and employees had to leave their jobs due to their cooperation with the East German system. The research institutes often became part of the overarching research organisations. Of the institutes of further education, the Humboldt University of Berlin and the Technical University of Dresden were honoured as universities of excellence.
What role does science play in Germany today?
Science is an important topic within German society, politics and the economy. According to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, in 2016 around 2.9 percent of GDP was spent on research and development. In comparison, according to the OECD, the USA spent 2.7 percent of its GDP on research and development, the UK 1.7 percent, and Switzerland 3.4 percent. The overall average among the OECD states is 2.3 percent.
Since 2005, top universities have been receiving special financial support from the state in connection with the Excellence Strategy (formerly: Excellence Initiative). As part of the Pact for Research and Innovation, the public financial support for the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and the four major research organisations is fixed. The High-Tech Strategy is a political instrument to transform research findings into applied science and economic applications.
Universities and research institutions are important employers in Germany. More than 700,000 people – professors, scientific staff and non-academic staff – are employed at the universities alone, without considering other public and private institutions of research.
Young scientists are particularly encouraged in Germany. The number of doctoral students and scientific staff in qualifying jobs is steadily rising. Many of them are employed in projects funded by third parties.
Students and researchers from abroad are highly welcome, and they are able to utilise excellent support structures like the German Academic Exchange Service, in order to prepare and organise their stay in Germany.
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Which scientific fields are important in Germany?
The range of scientific fields is huge: fundamental research plays an important role in all sciences in Germany. On the other hand, engineering, the chemical industry and high technology are key branches of the German economy. For this reason, there is a high commitment to applied sciences. According to the public German Research Foundation (DFG), the engineering sciences receive the most public financial support by far, followed by life sciences such as medicine and biology. At third place, the humanities in Germany have an important standing because of their long tradition, especially among the well-educated public.
In any case, most students take courses in law, economics and social sciences, followed by courses in engineering sciences.
Students in Germany by subject in the winter semester 2017/18
Field of study
Of which foreign students
Law, economics and social sciences
Mathematics and natural sciences
Human medicine and health sciences
Art and art studies
Agricultural, forestry and nutrition sciences, and veterinary medicine
Scientific education is available at public or private universities and at universities of applied sciences (known as ‘Fachhochschulen’). In addition, there are colleges of art, film and music. In accordance with the European Bologna Process, most study subjects conclude with a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Doctoral degrees can be achieved at universities, but not typically from universities of applied sciences. Since lifelong learning has become an increasingly important issue, many universities have established professional education and special master’s programmes.
Where does scientific research take place in Germany?
Scientific research is conducted at regular universities in particular as well as in a complex network of public research institutions, for example the Max Planck Institutes. There are also private research institutes and, of course, research and development departments in business enterprises.
academics - September 2018
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