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Laboratories of the Pioneer Spirit

Von Maren Soehring

Yesterday Harvard, today Dresden-Klotzsche: what's drawing excellent researchers to Saxony's capital city.

Laboratories of the Pioneer Spirit© Masur - Wikimedia Commons
Science magazine has just named the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics as the world's best workplace for researchers outside the USA. The test track is no longer than a metre, but its significance is immeasurable. Two boxes, connected by four cable strands, and beside them Stefan Krone, 27, world record holder. His development could soon be in use around the world. Krone has revolutionised the transfer speed of wireless networks: today's WLAN technology requires approximately twelve minutes to transfer an entire DVD; Krone can do it in five seconds. If the Diplom engineer were modding up cars, that would mean that in the time previously required to drive from Görlitz to Gera, Krone could take you around the world. His innovation is intended to enable data kiosks - at airports, in railway stations, at supermarkets - where customers could download entire movies onto their mobile phones in seconds. Thanks to an innovation from the Barkhausen Building in Georg-Schumann-Straße 11, Vodafone Chair. Thanks to an innovation made in Dresden. Several thousand scientists are already designing the future here: coating pistons in a new procedure that reduces friction and saves fuel; developing electrically powered race cars; researching new treatment methods for cancer and Alzheimer's disease; or installing miniature projectors into mobile phones. Readers will soon be able to download their daily paper onto the »CoolReader« from Dresden, a plastic film similar in size and flexibility to a folded newspaper.

Technical advances like this are also reflected in the current DFG funding ranking, where Dresden is meanwhile among the leading cities in many segments. 141.1 million euros have gone to Dresden in the years from 2005 to 2007; more funding went only to Berlin, Munich, Hanover, and traditional science locations such as Göttingen, Heidelberg or Karlsruhe. In the engineering sciences the TU Dresden is now ranked eighth; Wirtschaftswoche magazine named it as the fifth best university in Germany. And according to a study by DB Research, Saxony's capital city is one of the most »research intensive« locations in Europe. 20 years after the iron curtain came down, scientists in Dresden are still feeling that pioneer spirit and the desire to work together to advance science.

For example in the kitchen of House 120, 1st floor, of the Rossendorf Research Centre. When physicist Ulrich Schramm, an expert in laser particle acceleration, gets himself a coffee there, he often runs into physicians from the university clinic. Previously, Schramm had had little to do with medicine; on the OncoRay project he now works with doctors to find ways of treating cancer with laser-accelerated proton rays. Schramm says, »Elsewhere, people like me who perform basic research just work their way through one project after another. Here I can concentrate on issues relating to cancer therapy for the long-term. This opportunity only exists in Dresden.« He had previously worked in Heidelberg and Munich. Although he misses the Alps, the 43-year-old had no trouble deciding to move to the city on the Elbe - because the overall package was right: a city with a scientific tradition and affordable rents, surrounded by breathtaking landscape. And with high culture for everyone. »Two of my three children now sing in the Semperoper Chorus, and I greatly enjoy the concerts«, says Schramm. How to succeed in suddenly playing a part in the concerto of institutes of worldwide renown is illustrated by the example of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, founded in 1998.

Science magazine has just declared it the world's best workplace for researchers outside the USA. There are many reasons for this. For example, the Institute co-operates with a kindergarten and takes care to schedule important conferences before 4 p.m. to ensure that parents have time for their children. Hierarchies are few, everyone knows everyone else, and almost all of the 370 employees are on a first-name basis with each other. This atmosphere benefits particularly young researchers. »In India, as a beginner I follow orders«, says Vineeth Surendra, a bioinformatician from Bangalore. »In Dresden, everyone's ideas are of interest, be they temporary assistants or professors.« When Surendra was offered a job in Saxony in 2004, he had to google »Dresden«. Now the 30-year-old has extended his contract by another four years, and not just because of the legendary institute parties or the free beer every Friday evening. Researchers like him are offered a full service package. Staff take care of finding a flat, of dealings with government agencies, the mail. »You can concentrate entirely on your research here - you wouldn't even have to learn the language«, says Surendra.

He himself meanwhile speaks German, loves the arthouse cinemas and goes out in the trendy Neustadt district in the evenings. According to legend, its pub culture is another reason why the MPI came to Dresden in the first place. Surendra wants to stay, although the city doesn't always make it easy for people like him. According to a survey at the TU Dresden this summer, one in three people from abroad has had »negative experiences« here. Surendra can't confirm that. He was also able to reassure his worried mother, who recently called and wanted to fetch him back to India. The media there had reported the murder of Egyptian Marwa al-Scherbiny; Marwa's husband was one of Vineeth Surendra's colleagues. People from 45 countries work at the institute. »In general«, says Michael Brand, »Dresden has a good reputation on the international scene.« Brand himself came here ten years ago, after working in Cologne, Tübingen, Harvard and Heidelberg. Today he is the director of the Centre for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD), the only excellence cluster in the former East Germany. Sixteen interdisciplinary working groups conduct research into therapies for Alzheimer's, Parkinson, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and after not even four years the Dresden institute is already considered leading in Europe.

»Saxony and Dresden have succeeded in specifically promoting top-class research«, says Brand, »but sometimes we are still too inflexible, too slow, too bureaucratic.« From his office the 48-year-old looks out onto a large building site. The new CRTD house should have been completed two years ago, but it won't be opening until 2011. Brand has to improvise. But short-term planning is particularly unhelpful when it comes to offering up-and-coming talents career perspectives. The USA has long had the tenure track, a »career guarantee«: those who prove their qualities over a certain period of time are hired - indefinitely. In Germany, even top talents can end up on the street if there happens to be no position available for them. »Many think very carefully about whether to take that risk«, says Brand. In order to offer these researchers perspectives too, the Dresden scientists try to spin off projects with market potential from the institutes. Karl Leo is one of these pioneers, head of the Organic Electronics Saxony initiative, a professor at the TU and director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems in the Klotzsche district of town. »In order to be successful in the long run you need a critical mass«, says Leo, »and have to make sure the city becomes attractive to businesses.« Leo's specialty is making plastic light up. Organic light-emitting diodes, OLEDs, are paper-thin, transparent and generate light in every colour when a voltage is applied - on any material. The window of the future is transparent by day, but by night it bathes the living room in a warm white. OLEDs not only glow, they can also »see« for themselves, for example in data glasses: the site manager of the future will be able to order new materials simply by winking, and computer gamers will play hands-free. »Ten years ago, five people in Dresden were working on this subject«, says Leo, »now we're the leading location in Europe with approximately 500 employees in Dresden alone.« When Federal Minister of Education Anette Schavan recently travelled to China, she had her staff search the entire country for an innovative product made in Germany. What she finally presented as a gift was an OLED display that lights up on both sides with the Brandenburg Gate and her signature. It was a slightly kitschy indicator of the gift that future technology from Dresden may soon become.

From DIE ZEIT :: 19.11.2009