Research funding Excellence on Hold

The government's dithering over the extension of a university research fund that has seen Germany soar in world rankings could undo all its good work.
Will they still be there in 2018?

This Wednesday, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, made an appearance at a business summit in Berlin where research was high on the agenda. There was mutual back-patting all round. After all, the big goal to spend 3 percent - and rising - of Germany’s gross national product on research every year has been achieved.

However, all is not quite as it seems: One core research project, the Excellence Initiative for German universities, has been put on hold and its future is far from clear.

This is despite the program, designed to promote competition between top universities to improve research, having a proven track record. It has seen an additional €5 billion, or $5.5 billion, of taxpayers’ money pumped into leading research institutions since 2005.

This created more academic activity than ever before. Tens of thousands of new research positions were created, the top-level education of young scientists was reorganized, and, most importantly, 11 universities were declared elite universities and were able to promote themselves internationally using the accolade.

For the first time, it also became possible to overcome the gulf isolating the research done by universities from that by other research organizations. The reward has been that the international research community is again showing interest in German universities - thanks to the Excellence Initiative.

The government is about to damage a successful chapter in the history of German research by alternating between doing nothing and excitedly flapping its wings.

But now the leading universities are becoming increasingly nervous - and with good reason. It is not at all clear what will happen to the Excellence Initiative after 2017. For that reason, some universities are already unable to offer jobs to top professors in demand worldwide, and some graduate schools are no longer accepting doctoral candidates because they don’t know if they can fund them for the duration of their studies.

Why is that happening? Wasn't everyone told in 2012 that the funding would continue? Doesn’t the government agreement from 2013 guarantee the existence of the Excellence Initiative?

Yes, it does. And every couple of months since then, there have been assurances by the minister of education, the state minister-presidents and the chancellor. And only last month, the parties making up the coalition government agreed to plough another €5 billion into the Excellence Initiative between 2018 and 2028.  

But what is missing is a concise substantive proposal. For the past two years, one attempt has followed the other. Much can be said in favor of continuing to focus on top research and not to integrating yet other noble goals, such as better instruction, into the competition.

We should also hold on to the concept of the elite universities, the much-vaunted “beacons of science” - even if the center-left Social Democratic Party, the junior coalition party, would rather broaden the support. It is the beacons of science that have aroused international attention.

It would also make sense to pursue the meshing of universities and suitable independent institutions more strongly than before. After all, something akin to Harvard University in the United States could be created if an elite university was combined with one or more of Germany’s leading research institutes, such as the Max Planck institutes, Helmholtz center or a Fraunhofer institute.

Other sections of the Excellence Initiative, such as doctoral training, can be left to the German Research Foundation, for example. And finally, some thought should be given to extending the current five-year period of funding.

There are many sensible variations. The important thing is that policy-makers finally get to work. But whoever thinks that the federal education ministers and Germany’s 16 states are eager to remodel the Excellence Initiative will be disappointed. There is only an "unofficial" meeting of junior ministers.

The politicians responsible for education first want to see the report of a panel of international experts they commissioned to look at the issue in 2014. The panel, however, has made clear from the beginning that it can't quantitatively measure the success of the Excellence Initiative. That, it argues, is something the politicians will have to do themselves.

That is the absurdity of research policy. The policy-makers are trying to avoid setting their own priorities. This is especially true of the main funder, the federal government, but it applies to the states as well.

Time is running out. The experts are slated to report back in January 2016. That leaves a few months for public discussion and the final spurt of negotiations between the federal government and the states. The minister-presidents have to sign off on the whole package in June.

This is a highly complicated political process intended to shape the future of top-level German research, squeezed into a short period of time. The government is about to damage a successful chapter in the history of German research through alternating between doing nothing and excitedly flapping its wings.

It's time for decisive action.


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