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German science looks to new political players

Coalition change could affect policies, reports Quirin Schiermeier.

Angela Merkel has spearheaded large increases in federal science budgets. Credit: J. MACDOUGALL/AFP/GETTY

Science budgets in Germany have flourished under the current government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. And despite the gloomy economic climate, the 27 September parliamentary elections seem unlikely to change that.

In fact, the biggest changes to German science could come from policies advocated by the Free Democrats, who may end up as the new junior partner in an extension of Merkel's Christian Democrat government. The Free Democrats, who could replace the Social Democrats in coalition with the Christian Democrats, have a distinctly liberal approach in hot-button areas such as genetically modified crops and stem cells.

All recent polls show Merkel's planned new coalition to have an average share of the vote of around 50%. The opposing Social Democrat party, which has nominated foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as its candidate for chancellor, has dropped to a historic low of 25% in the polls, with the Greens and the Left Party behind that.

Most scientists think that Merkel, a chemist by training, will continue the science-friendly course she has pursued since coming to power in 2005. Federal science budgets increased by 10% this year, to around €10.2 billion (US$15 billion), the latest rise in a steady upward trend in science spending over the decade (see graphic).

"It is gratifying to see that politicians have a great amount of trust in science," says Matthias Kleiner, president of the DFG, Germany's main granting agency. "We do know that this means an obligation for us to work hard to deliver what society expects from science."

Germany spends slightly more than 2.5% of its gross domestic product on science and technology, putting it ninth among the world's most research-intensive nations. In June, the federal government and the prime ministers of Germany's 16 states agreed an extra €18-billion package for universities and research organizations (see http://tinyurl.com/l768c6). The heart of the package is a continuance of the so-called 'excellence initiative', a competition launched by the previous Social Democrat–Green government to raise the profile of German universities (see 'University excellence initiative takes off'). Without that funding, the initiative would have expired in 2011.

Biotechnology, environmental technology, energy and health research have also benefited from the German government's €14-billion high-tech strategy, which began in 2006. And thanks to massive public support, Germany has become a global market leader in 'green' technologies, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic cells (see 'Visions of a green future'). In August, the cabinet approved a plan to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020, including €500 million for developing novel battery technologies and building a network of charging stations.

Reducing red tape

If the Free Democrats, led by Guido Westerwelle, succeed in becoming the new coalition partner, they may use their influence to reduce red tape and restrictions in ethically sensitive branches of science.

"The economic situation won't allow excessive increases in science budgets," says Ulrike Flach, the party's spokeswoman for science and technology. "But we are set to increase the general freedom to research, and ease existing restrictions to stem-cell research and genetic engineering."

We are set to increase the general freedom to research, and ease restrictions to stem-cell research and genetic engineering. ,

For instance, German researchers are currently allowed to use only human embryonic stem-cell lines created before 1 May 2007. The DFG and most stem-cell researchers say these are sufficient, but Flach says that if the community feels more lines are needed, the Free Democrats will push to change or abolish that cut-off date.

In the past, the Free Democrats have also acted to release universities from ministerial restraint. In Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, the two largest German states, Free Democrat science ministers have in recent years introduced sweeping reforms such as allowing universities to hire professors without ministry approval.

If Merkel's proposed coalition forms after the election, the post of science minister — currently held by Annette Schavan of the Christian Democrats — might go to a Free Democrat. Flach says they will argue that the science ministry should take charge of technology-related budgets, including space and Germany's contribution to Galileo, the multi-billion-euro European global positioning system that is currently the responsibility of Germany's transport ministry.

But money remains the main concern of many researchers. Germany's biotechnology industry fears that a Christian Democrat–Free Democrat government might reduce support for high-tech industries in favour of more traditional technologies such as automation. "There is no wave of insolvency yet," says Viola Bronsema, managing director of Berlin-based BIO Deutschland, an association of Germany's small biotechnology companies. "But government support will be vital to keep the young industry alive."

The Greens also argue that support for environmental technologies and research into renewable energies must not fall behind. "There is still too much support for controversial branches, such as plant genetic engineering and nuclear research, which promise little benefit to society," says Hans-Josef Fell, the Green party's spokesman for energy and technology.

Germany's target for reducing annual greenhouse gases, by 40% of 1990 levels by 2020, is likely to remain unchanged.

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Schiermeier, Q. German science looks to new political players. Nature 461, 456–457 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/461456a

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