Germany drags its feet over demand for genome funds

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A widely heralded strategy paper proposing significantly higher public investment in genomics research in Germany appears to have been put on hold. German scientists are concerned that the move could threaten efforts to catch up with other countries.

The paper was drawn up by the research ministry, and had been expected to be made public at the annual meeting of the German Human Genome Project in Munich earlier this month. But Wolf-Michael Catenhusen, secretary of state for research, says the paper will now be presented to the government in early summer next year.

The German research ministry has been giving mixed messages about the cause of the delay, which dashes hopes for more cash for genomics next year. Hans Lehrach of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, a spokesman for the German Human Genome Project, says the delay could be “disastrous” for Germany's hopes of catching up in genome research after a late start.

The research ministry's strategy paper was drawn up after a rare period of lobbying by the scientific community. This began a year ago at a meeting called by Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Germany's grant-giving agency for research in universities.

Ministry representatives at that meeting were dismayed by the lack of agreement between scientists on the best way forward for genome research. Various research organizations then prepared individual reports and reached a general agreement that funding should be increased by an order of magnitude if Germany was to compete internationally.

Proposed strategies for spending an enlarged budget were also convergent, focusing primarily on analysis of the function of human genes and development of model organisms for this, but also including some economically, environmentally or medically relevant plant and microorganism genomics.

These aims are reflected in an early draft of the ministry's strategy document which recommends the expansion of the main genome research centres in Munich, Berlin and Heidelberg, and the creation of more focused scientific networks.

According to the draft, such a strategy would require “a new quality of state financing” — it refers to the large differences in the funding of genomic research compared with the United States, United Kingdom and France (see figure). And it should be complemented by industry, and by a reorientation of research institutes' core funding.

Figure 1

(Source: German research ministry.)

Public funding of genome research.

Catenhusen, who had been confident in the summer that there would be no delay, agrees that the scientific community is now “speaking with one voice”, and says there is no dissent in the ministry about the strategy paper's content.

But he now says the paper needs to wait until other decisions are made, such as how the Berlin-based resource centre should be restructured, and how national research centres plan to expand their own genome research through internal reorganization (see Nature 402, 450; 1999).

He remains bullish about the strategy paper's big aims. It would be relatively simple to continue modest increases in genome research funding “to a level of say DM90 million [US$47 million] per year, which would be a 40 per cent increase [since 1996]”, he says. “But this is not our strategy's message; genome research funding should be DM250–400 million per year. We need time to prepare ourselves carefully for a round of persuasive discussion with the government.”

But many scientists are dismayed by what they see as delaying tactics. Lehrach says: “We lost a lot of time in the last ten years when other countries were moving slowly in genomics, but now genomics is moving very fast, so any months we lose in failing to bolster funds will be a disaster.”

While some scientists worry that the delays could reflect splits in the Social Democrat/Green coalition government over a genomics strategy that includes plant genomics, a more likely explanation is Germany's economic squeeze. “If politicians are holding back at the moment, it is because of the unclear financial situation,” says one ministry official. “But the will to expand genomics research is very strong.”

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Abbott, A. Germany drags its feet over demand for genome funds. Nature 402, 706 (1999) doi:10.1038/45318

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