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Lateral Thinkers and Border Crossers Required


Interview: Andreas Sentker

Science and industry must be networked more closely, demands Joachim Milberg, who has himself gained positive experiences as a border crosser.

Lateral thinkers and border crossers© acatech Joachim Milberg, President of acatech
DIE ZEIT: Innovation means change and departure. Are you worried that the innovation climate in Germany will deteriorate as a global economic crisis threatens?

JOACHIM MILBERG: The most recent figures we have on the subject of research and development spending in Germany are good. Businesses have invested more money in research and development and are creating jobs there. But we must ensure that this trend doesn't change now. Particularly in times of crisis we have to support the next generation. Once the economic situation has calmed down, we have to take off again. And future growth can only arise from research and development. There could also be a positive aspect to the financial crisis: young people with an appreciation for numbers and technology who were previously drawn towards the world of banking might become more interested in "real innovations" again.

DIE ZEIT: To the public, the news from the large companies indicates something else. There's talk of stopped production lines and reduced hours. The tabloids are asking the question that's on their readers' minds: How secure is my job? That companies are constantly doing research and looking for staff in this field is barely visible.

MILBERG: That is partly a mentality problem that affects society as a whole. Do we really all sufficiently understand just how much our prosperity depends on this field, on investments in the future, on research and development spending, but also on investments in education?

DIE ZEIT: What do you think?

MILBERG: I fear the answer must be no.

DIE ZEIT: Why do these opportunities, these jobs go so widely unnoticed by the public?

MILBERG: People know that many billions of euros are put into research and development in Germany. But hardly anyone has an idea of the associated opportunities that motivates them personally. We are seeing the consequences in the next generation of engineers. We are training fewer people than we need to maintain current levels. If we want to grow, we will be facing an enormous challenge, not least due to the demographic trend.

DIE ZEIT: Is there a solution in sight?

MILBERG: This is a systemic problem that we have to address on many levels. For example, we have learnt from a survey that the course for later career choices is set very early, often at ten or twelve years of age. So if we want to get people excited about science and technology, we will have to start placing far more emphasis on these things in kindergarten and primary school. We also have too few women in technical degree courses and professions. This is due among other things to the fact that female school leavers lack role models who can get them excited about these career paths.

DIE ZEIT: Is the importance of the subject of innovation in Germany also understood by those making policy decisions?

MILBERG: That Federal Minister of Education Anette Schavan is announcing increased funding for education at this particular time is a very good sign. But - and this is a central part of our knowledge from six years of acatech - we all have to do more in this area, from businesses through politics to changing societal awareness.

DIE ZEIT: Since the beginning of this year, acatech has been the German Academy of Science and Engineering - a national academy. What do you hope to achieve under this heading

MILBERG: Our aim is very clearly to strengthen the chain of education, innovation, employment, prosperity.
DIE ZEIT: What does that mean for the Academy's latest project, advising the government in the field of innovation and technology?

MILBERG: Our mission is to develop a concept of how policy advice in the field of innovation can be further improved. This is particularly important because we cannot afford a change in trend in the field of innovation and education, especially not now. The Federal Government expects us to provide a dialogue on the important issues of the future. Our job is to find and define these issues.

DIE ZEIT: But that requires independence from the political powers seeking advice, for example in the form of a committee that doesn't change after every legislative period.

MILBERG: If we want to turn our attention to these important issues and evaluate both the answers and the process, this work must extend beyond legislative periods.

DIE ZEIT: What are the most important approaches in innovation policy, in your opinion? Tax breaks for research investments help first and foremost large companies who are already making large profits.

MILBERG: There are many possible instruments. A start-up company has other needs than a medium-sized business or a global corporation. In my opinion tax incentives and support for venture capital will have to be considered. But the state as a primary user also plays an important part. We will have to put this tool box together and use it appropriately and differentiatedly.

DIE ZEIT: In addition to state investments and subsidies, is promoting collaboration between companies and research institutions also an important tool?

MILBERG: Absolutely. There's still a lot of potential in networking science, industry and politics.

DIE ZEIT: You yourself have switched back and forth between roles in science and industry several times in your career, were among other things CEO of BMW and a professor at the Technical University of Munich. Are transitions of that kind easy enough in Germany?

MILBERG: All in all, no! This despite the fact that transfer through minds is the best way of networking different areas with each other. For me personally it was a great opportunity to change my perspective several times. That opportunity is still not open to enough people.

DIE ZEIT: Why is that?

MILBERG: The reward and career systems are very different and barely compatible. And this despite the fact that an insight into the options available to the other side would be extremely useful in industry, science and politics.

DIE ZEIT: That is especially apparent when it comes to new challenges. For example climate change: is there a shared understanding between politics, science and industry that can turn the frightening issue of climate into a challenge which can be productively faced?

MILBERG: After the two climate research summits of last year I am more optimistic that we will free ourselves from the paralysis of fear and arrive at a real will to formulate changes. Climate is also an issue where we are dependent on new technologies, products and processes. This may ultimately open up worldwide opportunities to German industry.

DIE ZEIT: If you had time and money now to dedicate yourself as a researcher to one of the previously mentioned important issues , which one would it be?

MILBERG: The "next generation" issue would probably be my most important concern. That's a truly cross-sectional issue that affects all areas.

DIE ZEIT: Then it's convenient that the education summit of the Federal Government and the federal states takes place immediately after acatech's birthday celebration.

MILBERG: Exactly!

DIE ZEIT :: 16.10.2008