Germany's national research centres have agreed to abandon their independence and accept a plan to centralize decision-making on strategic research priorities, a move that will increase both competition and collaboration between them.
The plan was announced last week at the annual assembly of the Hermann von Helmholtz Association (HGF), the umbrella group for the 16 centres. Of their DM3 billion (US$1.6 billion) annual budget, 90 per cent is provided by the federal government, with the remainder coming from Länder (state) governments.
Six strategic ‘cornerstones’ have been chosen for the institutes' research programmes: the structure of matter, environmental and Earth sciences, transport and space research, health, energy, and enabling technologies.
Each cornerstone is subdivided into several areas. Health, for example, covers biomedical research, medical technologies and public health research. Biomedical research includes areas such as cell–cell and virus–cell interaction, functional genome and proteome analysis by DNA and protein chip technology, gene therapy and bioinformatics.
The first national research centres were set up in the 1950s to carry out nuclear research. Changing political and technological priorities mean that their focus has shifted to medical and environmental research, but recently their research activities have been criticized for a lack of scientific coherence.
The plan will be overseen by a commission of representatives of the institutes and of the federal and regional governments. Under the proposed reorganization, the HGF's senate would act as a supervisory and decision-making board with broad responsibilities for determining strategic research priorities, and allocating money accordingly.
The influential board will comprise members of the HGF, the federal government and the Länder, and also representatives from industry and the heads of Germany's major research organizations — the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer Society and the Conference of University Rectors.
The centres would report to — and be financed by — a body responsible for the general direction of their research, and will have to compete for research funds. All proposals will be reviewed by panels of external experts chosen by the senate.
The groundwork for the shift was laid two years ago, when the centres agreed to divert five per cent of their budgets to a central, DM150-million strategy fund, to which they have to apply competitively (see Nature 387, 837; 1997). “The strategy fund has prepared the ground for more collaboration and competition between the centres,” says Detlev Ganten, scientific director of the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin and head of the HGF. “But now we will have a de facto global budget.”
Most HGF members welcome the changes, hoping that they will sharpen the centres' scientific profiles at a time when the Wissenschaftsrat, Germany's science council, has begun a systematic evaluation of the HGF. “Provided that basic research is not excessively damaged, it is certainly the right development,” says Hans-Günter Afting, director of the National Research Centre for Environment and Health in Munich.
But some of the HGF's research may have to find a new home. The Bonn-based National Research Centre for Information Technology, for example, will leave the HGF in 2001 and join the Fraunhofer Society, Germany's organization for applied research. According to Ganten, a further reduction of the number of national research centres is “within the bounds of possibility”.