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Turf battles versus German excellence

Disputes between Germany's states and its federal government need not cripple the country's research priorities.

When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder last month opened Germany's celebrations of Albert Einstein's great achievements in 1905, he expounded at great length the urgency of boosting creativity, innovation and enthusiasm for science. But he failed to mention the fact that an ambitious attempt to boost support for curiosity-driven research in Einstein's country of origin was about to crumble, thanks to political manoeuvring.

The programmes designed last year to create world-class centres in German universities and research institutes may fall victim to the chronic battles for power between federal and regional governments (see page 448). Both sides had agreed to support the programmes, and the money — €390 million (US$510 million) per year from 2006 to 2010 — had been set aside. Shamefully, the bickering has led to the programmes being put on ice.

The irony is that the impasse is a result of an attempt to undo the Gordian knot of federalism in Germany by loosening the jealously guarded powers of the regions. The attempt has failed dismally. Forlornly, one can only hope that the politicians will learn that science and other key areas are the ultimate victims of their power games.

At the moment, science is being used as a hostage. With Schröder's praise of science still ringing in their ears, this will seem a cynical tactic to Germany's tens of thousands of highly motivated researchers.

But there may be a productive way forward. Some suspect that the Länder (states) governed by the Christian Democrats begrudge the Social Democrat federal government any political success: they may fear that the extra money for science will begin to bear fruit just before the next federal elections in 2006. But rather than block such success, they should try to get a share of it.

The fairest way would be for all to agree to entrust the DFG, Germany's main science funding agency, with the task of distributing in a transparent and competitive way the extra money in the framework of a new programme of research excellence. There is no lack of ideas about how to spend the extra money efficiently. For example, there are many groups in Germany for whom relatively modest equipment grants would enable competition with top centres overseas.

Investment in a few dozen interdisciplinary training programmes, such as the high-profile graduate school for cellular neuroscience at the University of Leipzig, would improve training and career opportunities for many young researchers and greatly increase Germany's attractiveness for the brightest minds from abroad.

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Turf battles versus German excellence. Nature 433, 443 (2005).

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