Viewpoint: how a year of war has changed German science and higher education policy

21 Feb 2023 | Viewpoint

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a ‘Zeitenwende’, shifting Germany policy towards a new, wary realism. Research policy has only begun to catch up, says Ruppert Stüwe, German Social Democratic Party MP

German MP Ruppert Stüwe (left) and his scientific adviser, Tim Flink (right). Photo: Fionn Grosse / K. Gintar

A year has passed since Russia started to wage a gruesome war against Ukraine. Aside from causing thousands of deaths, displacing millions and causing a pan-European economic crisis, the invasion triggered a fundamental rethinking of German policy. Three days after the invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz famously declared to MPs and the nation that Vladimir Putin’s aggression marked a “Zeitenwende” – a historical turn - for Europe.

The immediate response, he said, had to be a refitting of German defence capabilities.

But more broadly, the Zeitenwende can be interpreted as a general turn towards realism in all policy fields, acknowledging that the warm and comfy days of post-Cold War global euphoria and collaboration are over. In particular, Germany is grappling with how to translate this new realism into research policy.

The initial response to the war was swift. The day after the invasion, the so-called Alliance of German Science Organisations, comprising university heads, research institutions, funding bodies and the national academy Leopoldina, condemned Russia’s attack as a violation of international law.

Together with the federal government and its 16 states, the alliance decided to freeze all institutional collaborations and project funding with Russian scientific institutions.

However, individual collaborations with Russian scientific colleagues were neither forbidden nor condemned. After all, the German constitution guarantees freedom of teaching, research, arts and culture beyond national borders. And neither was it easy to exclude Russia from board memberships of transnational European research infrastructures, such as the European XFEL X-ray facility in Hamburg, or FAIR, an ion research infrastructure in Darmstadt.

In the case of XFEL, Russia even continues to pay its 26% share of the costs. Still, most of the German Alliance’s science organisations have closed their liaison offices in Moscow. Only the German Historical Institute still upholds its library.

Refugee students and scholars

Meanwhile, universities braced for an expected 100,000 Ukrainian students as well as many thousands of scholars seeking refuge, although it is not clear whether so many came. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) created a support website, help desk and exchange platform for refugee students in the month following the invasion.

At the same time, DAAD and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH), which funds scholars to come to or leave Germany, got an instant green light from the federal research ministry to financially bolster and tailor existing programmes for refugee students and scholars to cope with the influx from Ukraine. Students of Ukrainian origin were allowed to move freely within the Schengen zone. Non-European refugees who had studied in Ukraine were allowed an extended stay until the end of August 2022, without applying for asylum status or a residence permit.

Last summer, however, DAAD and AvH were threatened by severe cuts, due to a budget squeeze by the foreign ministry, which helps funds overseas educational and cultural efforts, and is currently led by prominent Green Party minister Annalena Baerbock. Backed by our parliamentary proposal in support of Ukrainian education and research, this planned budget cut was scruntinised in the Bundestag, and reversed into a major budget boost for both organisations.

In addition, funds earmarked for supporting refugee students and researchers were allowed to be passed from one to the next annual budget, in case financial resources were underspent.  

Stepping back from the immediate response, the war in Ukraine has translated into two challenges for German research policy. First, existing mechanisms for students and scholars at risk are unfit, if humanitarian crises or purges of intellectuals and scholars keep recurring, as they will likely do. For these are no isolated incidents anymore, which can be responded to by funding bodies based on individual grants from the parliament. Rather, German research policy must create a safe space on a sustainable basis, by providing appropriate flexible residence permits and ample funding that students or scholars at risk can swiftly resort to.

No more tech transfer to autocracies

Secondly, Russia’s war against Ukraine and its hybrid threats against democracies have questioned the validity and effectiveness of soft power influence via education and science, as epitomised by DAAD’s slogan “change by exchange” or the UK Royal Society’s motto “science for diplomacy”. Researchers on science diplomacy had been skeptical of this approach before the war.

Members of the German parliament, staff from different ministries, parts of the intelligence community, and research institutions and funding agencies, are now discussing a more realistic take on international research policy.

Instead of “change by exchange”, German academia is urged to abstain from international collaborations that help aggressive autocrats build up scientific and technological capabilities. This discussion was fueled by results of the “China Science Investigation, released in summer 2022, and a more detailed analysis in January 2023, which revealed the existence of hundreds of dual-use collaborations - for example in hypersonic rocket technology, laser guidance systems, artificial intelligence research for facial recognition - between German public research institutions and Chinese military counterparts.

At last, German research policy has started to become more aware of the fact that German research institutions are not sufficiently resilient against foreign science and technology espionage and other measures, such as destabilising cyber-attacks. Recent years have seen spectacular knockouts of German universities’ IT infrastructures, convicted cases of science and technology espionage, and evidence of hundreds of cases of research data theft.

But it is still hard to enact a Zeitenwende in German academia, given the high standards of scientific freedom in Germany that are protected by its constitution, the fragmented responsibility for science and technology policy due to German federalism, and general suspicion in German academia, which still cultivates strong reservations against any state interventions.

Future strategy

Currently, three government strategies are shaping German international research policy to this new reality - in Germany’s first ever national security strategy, a new China strategy, and a "future strategy" from the research ministry.

The research ministry’s future strategy, released in the second week of February, warns against sensitive technology development with autocratic states, especially China, and recommends the strengthening of research institutions to make them resilient against hybrid threats including espionage and cyber attacks. But it also demands that these critical issues are taken up by the new national security strategy.

This wider strategy, however, is still in the making. Originally planned for release at the Munich Security Conference last week, the country’s first ever national security strategy is still being haggled over by different ministries and is bogged down in details of wording. When we informally inspected the draft in January, it was lacking dedicated awareness and political commitment to resilient research infrastructures. It also lacked a call to the research community to act more responsibly in international collaboration.

Drafts of the China strategy are more explicit. It raises concerns that certain links with China risk weakening freedom of expression in academic research and higher education, and it demands that “unregulated sensitive technology development and transfer” should be stopped. Yet, this strategy is also bogged down in discussion between ministries, and needs clearance from the chancellery.

How these strategies redraw the contours of German international research policy will depend on further thoughtful exchange with the research community – but German academia also needs to prove that it can act responsibly beyond national borders.

Ruppert Stüwe MP sits on the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment, where he acts as rapporteur for international education, research and technology policy, health research, digitalisation and research data infrastructures.

Tim Flink is scientific adviser to Ruppert Stüwe. A political scientist and sociologist, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher, lecturer and coordinator of the Master's programme 'Social Studies of Science' at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

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