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Germany Debates How to Strengthen Universities

Science  19 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6143, pp. 227
DOI: 10.1126/science.341.6143.227
Under pressure.

German universities haven't all benefited from government funding largess.


BERLIN—Germany's recent push to boost a handful of its universities to the world's top ranks got a yellow light this week. A prominent advisory council recommended taking a break from the national competition to find, and fund, Germany's top schools. Funding should focus on strengthening a broad base of research—and teaching—at the country's universities, according to a 15 July report from the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat).

A relatively robust economy has allowed the government to increase funding for the country's major nonuniversity research organizations by 5% per year since 2011. But many university-based scientists see little of the money because the constitution prohibits the federal government from funding universities directly. A pair of agreements between the federal and state governments did pump billions of euros into universities through a "Higher Education Pact" that funds the growing number of students and an "Excellence Initiative" to support university research and encourage a few schools to strive for the world's top ranks. But not all universities have thrived.

In Germany, education is controlled by the Länder (states). Many state budgets have not been generous to research so university-based researchers have become increasingly dependent on grant-based funding, particularly from the German Research Foundation (DFG). "The basic funding for the universities is eroding," says DFG President Peter Strohschneider.

Change is coming because the budget-boosting agreements end between 2015 and 2019, and national elections in September will decide who gets to set the policies that will take their place. Funding bodies and organizations of research institutes have in recent months offered varying views of how the system should be changed. But they all share one thing: "We all agree that the funding for universities has to be increased," says Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society, which funds institutes independent of universities.

On 9 July, the Max Planck Society proposed establishing a system of Max Planck Professors and Max Planck Centers at universities neighboring its institutes. The Helmholtz Association, which runs Germany's large research centers such as the DESY accelerator lab in Hamburg and the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, floated a controversial idea late last year for starting its own granting program that would fund cooperative projects with universities.

This week's report from the Wissenschaftsrat, which includes scientists and politicians, was the most eagerly awaited. An earlier, rejected draft reportedly said that Germany should strive for up to five world-class universities. The final version, in contrast, takes a more egalitarian approach, saying that universities are the core of the research system. It proposes two new funding mechanisms to support top research at a broad spectrum of schools: establishing Merian professorships, named for 17th century naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, which would provide €1 million per year to each of 250 leading academics; and setting up roughly 40 Liebig Centers (named for chemist Justus von Liebig), to boost key research areas. The competition for top schools could be revisited in 10 to 15 years, the report says.

Council Chair Wolfgang Marquardt says that the recommendations are affordable if Germany takes seriously the goal of spending 3.5% of gross domestic product on research and development. But others are more cautious. "There's still a huge gap between these proposals and the realities faced by politicians," says Wilhelm Krull, secretary general of the Volkswagen Foundation, a private research funder.


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