Germany's research agencies open up recruiting practices

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Markl: reform of recruitment system needed.

All vacancies for scientific directors at Germany's Max Planck Institutes will in future be advertised, and a worldwide search for new institute heads will be coordinated by central search commissions, announced Hubert Markl, president of the Max Planck Society (MPS), this week.

The reform of the appointment system is one of the moves being taken in response to an external evaluation of Germany's main basic research organizations published last spring (see Nature 399, 395–396; 1999).

More than half of the MPS's 240 scientific directors will retire within the next eight years. “Systematic head-hunting” of leading German and international scientists is to begin at least three years before a director retires, according to Markl.

By increasing centralized control over appointments, the MPS is keen significantly to strengthen its influence on the areas of research at the 80 institutes. Adopting a more strategic approach to research funding was one of the principal suggestions of the international evaluation committee.

As for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's grants agency for university research, the committee complained that its inflexible and conservative funding policy would tend to block promising new ideas.

After six months of intensive discussions, the MPS and DFG have now accepted in principle to put most of the committee's suggestions into action. But officials at both organizations stress that constant annual increases in their budgets — currently around DM2 billion (US$1.03 billion) each — are essential for the proposed reorganization.

Markl and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the DFG, presented their organizations' final reports on the evaluation at a press conference this week. They announced plans to create better and more flexible career opportunities for young scientists and women. They also agreed to cooperate more closely in the training of PhD students, and to promote innovative interdisciplinary research.

But the MPS added the qualification that the number of additional junior independent research groups at its institutes would be limited by the need to ensure an “appropriately high scientific level”, as well as by the lack of “sufficient follow-up positions”.

The DFG agreed to revise and speed up its peer-review system. It wants to limit the exclusive right of Germany's scientific societies to nominate referees, in the hope of increasing the number of younger scientists and women among elected referees. But it says it will not introduce a quota system.

The committee had recommended that the DFG should “actively influence the long-term developments of science”, rather than just responding to them. But the agency argues that the panel “underestimated the DFG's actual strategic activities”.

The MPS and DFG are calling on the government to help put the reforms into action by providing adequate finance and relaxing restrictive employment laws.

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Schiermeier, Q. Germany's research agencies open up recruiting practices. Nature 402, 710 (1999) doi:10.1038/45339

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