07 Oct 2009   |   News

Betting on the elite

Science|Business speaks to Professor Matthias Kleiner, President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, about the impact of the Excellence Initiative on German higher education.

Matthias Kleiner, President of the DFG.

Germany has great research, but few big-name institutions. With the government’s recent decision to keep funding the Excellence Initiative, the country is turning from its traditionally egalitarian stance, to promoting elite research institutions to compete with the Oxfords and Harvards of the world.

The celebration party was in July, but Germany’s newly created Karlsruhe Institute of Technology officially opens its doors this month – an institution created by a merger between the University of Karlsruhe and the government-sponsored Research Centre of Karlsruhe. Academics say the unprecedented move is a sign of the changes sweeping the German education landscape – what Germans like to call Aufbruchstimmung, (roughly translated: a mood of hopeful expectation).

More such moves to break down the barriers within academia can be expected. Since 2006, the German federal and state governments have committed to funding the Excellence Initiative - an ambitious attempt to raise the level of German higher education and improve its reputation abroad, enabling German universities to attract top talent.

The Excellence Initiative

The goal

Make Germany a more attractive research location, more internationally competitive and focus attention on the outstanding achievements of German universities and the German scientific community. 

How to get there

Sponsor an ongoing competition among German institutions to be chosen as “excellence” institutions worthy of funding that will help them fund projects, hire top academics and distinguish themselves.

The targets

Graduate schools that encourage and promote young scientific talent

Clusters or research hubs that include universities, research organisations and private companies involved in
future-oriented projects for improving university research     

The selection process

Expert panels put together by the German Research Foundation and the German Science Council reviewed applicants and chose excellence institutions in two successive rounds.

Over the course of the two rounds, 39 graduate schools, 37 excellence clusters and 9 future-oriented projects were chosen that will receive a total of €1.9 billion through 2012.

In June, another €2.7 billion was approved to use after 2012.  The circle of institutions will be widened, also to include small and medium-sized institutions.

Science|Business’s Mary Lisbeth D’Amico spoke with Professor Matthias Kleiner, President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the government-owned funding organisation that promotes research at universities and other publicly financed research institutions, about the current and future impact of the Excellence Initiative.
Science|Business: It was good news in June when German federal and state governments voted to continue funding the Excellence Initiative. Why did the government agree, in spite of the financial crisis?
Matthias Kleiner: Chancellor Merkel and the state prime ministers correctly  recognised the need to invest more in science and research during an economic crisis, because they are the foundation for innovation and growth, and thus help generate security and wealth. Our scientific institutions have demonstrated this repeatedly, and the politicians were convinced by it. They showed the courage to take a longer-term view. Their decision also demonstrates great confidence in our scientific institutions and we fully expect to meet these expectations with our current and future research efforts.

The government originally voted to put another €1.9 billion towards the Excellence Initiative. What does this mean in concrete terms? How much of that is already being used and for what?

The original €1.9 billion goes towards the phases of the Excellence Initiative through the end of 2011–2012. That goes to all 85 selected institutions for five years. That means among the 39 graduate schools an average of €1 million per year, for the 37 Excellence clusters, an average of about €6 million annually and another €13.5 million annually of that will go towards the nine “Concept for the Future” projects developed by individual universities.

The money will mainly be used to hire highly qualified scientists. And with much success: the Excellence Initiative has created and filled more than 4,000 new research positions already.  For the continuation of the Excellence Initiative beyond 2012 – Phase II – the government will make an additional €2.7 billion available. This will stimulate a true competition between the institutions already chosen, as well as some new ones.

The official goals of the Initiative are to strengthen Germany as a centre of scientific research, increase its ability to compete on an international level and to raise the profile of its top universities and research institutions. What progress has been made in this direction?   

The Excellence Initiative has already changed the science and research landscape in Germany. We are finally getting away from the idea that all institutions of higher education are equal and should be supported equally. Instead, it focuses on the idea of elite institutions, a concept that was shunned in Germany for a long time. This focused search for excellence and its specific support really has brought a fresh wind into German science, leading to many forward-looking ideas and projects in all areas. This is also being strongly recognised on an international level. Not too long ago, for example, representatives of the Excellence Initiative visited academic institutions in the US, where they were impressed with the new ideas and attitudes that Germany is demonstrating.  

According to the German Ministry for Education and Research, the Excellence Initiative has altered the structure and profile of many research institutions and universities in Germany. Can you give some concrete examples?

The focused search for promising new ideas and projects has enabled universities and research institutes to improve and strengthen their reputation in research. That actually applies to all institutions and not just those that have received government support under the Initiative.

One important thing we see is that we have been able to fill more research positions. Since the Excellence Initiative, universities have been able to fill 4,205 such positions.  Of those 326 are professors, 3,731 group leaders or postdoctoral candidates, and 148 science managers. Most interesting is that about 23 per cent of these positions have been filled with people returning from abroad, and that 38.6 per cent of them are women.

Further, it has led to numerous new forms of cooperation within excellence clusters among universities, research institutes and with research arms of small and medium-sized companies. The recent merger of the University of Karlsruhe and the Research Center Karlsruhe into the KIT (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) is a good and surely one of the most dramatic examples of this new form of cooperation. But cooperation doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a merger. Interdisciplinary cooperation of all kinds will take place, blurring the boundaries between different branches of science and research. Groups with different research methods and structures will come together and will cross-pollinate each other with new ideas.

As you mentioned, the idea of elites has not always been popular one in Germany. There are those who criticise the Initiative as triggering a ruthless “have and have-not” mentality among research institutions and universities. What is your view? Is competition good?   

Competition is one of the most important motors for science and research, and the Excellence Initiative is an excellent example of that.  Without competition, there can be no excellence in science. And the successful universities are rightly proud of their accolades and the improved reputations they hold both at home and abroad.  But that doesn’t mean we have a two-class society in Germany. As previously mentioned, all universities have profited from the Excellence Initiative and the sense of hope that it has generated. And in the future, besides the large excellence universities, there will also be small and medium-sized universities that distinguish themselves and can compete in individual areas.

What still needs to be done?

The legal and financial framework for scientists in Germany must also be further improved, for example with a salary contract for scientists and researchers. We must expand our support of up and coming talent, so that more young people, especially young women, choose a career in the sciences. And in the area of research, the career structure in academe must be improved. The Higher Education Pact (designed to increase student numbers at Germany’s universities) is a good step in this direction. That was extended along with the Excellence Initiative.

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