Despite the federal government's strong support for science and higher education, the crisis in Germany's public finances is starting to take its toll, as cash-poor states prepare to cut university budgets.

Slashed university budgets bring protestors out on the streets in Kiel, Germany. Credit: A. WARMUTH/PICTURE ALLIANCE/DPA/PHOTOSHOT

In the state of Schleswig-Holstein last week, thousands rallied in the capital, Kiel, to protest against the imminent closure of the medical school at the University of Lübeck. "We will have to stop the enrolment of medical students as from the winter term 2011," says Rolf Hilgenfeld, a structural virologist at the university. "This is outrageous." And researchers in Lübeck and elsewhere fear worse is to come.

The federal government has spared national agencies, such as the German Research Funding Council (DFG), from the multi-billion-euro cuts in public spending announced last month. But many of the states, which fund the universities, are struggling to keep financing at current levels. The Hesse government, for example, last month announced university budget cuts of €30 million (US$37 million) a year over the next five years. Universities in Saxony are facing similar cuts.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the government announced in May that it will cut public expenditure by €125 million a year to close a looming budget deficit. Science and higher education will be hit hard. From 2015, the University of Lübeck will lose €24 million a year — 30% of its total budget — which scientists there say will not only close the medical school but threaten the university's very existence.

The University of Lübeck also hosts a graduate school for computing in medicine and life sciences, and is part of a €35-million 'excellence cluster' in medical research on inflammation, both funded by the federal government. Both programmes are likely to be discontinued, says university president Peter Dominiak.

The proposed cuts have to be approved by the state parliament, which is expected to vote in December. But some scientists are already preparing to leave. "The university will be damaged to such an extent that for me it makes no sense to stay," says Jan Born, a neuroscientist who earlier this year received a €2.5-million Leibniz prize, Germany's most prestigious scientific award, for his research on sleep and memory.

The heads of the DFG and of the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), the state universities association, are concerned over the Lübeck cuts. "This … is a misstep with far-reaching negative consequences," Margret Wintermantel, president of the HRK, wrote to Peter Harry Carstensen, the Christian Democrat prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein, "not only for the University of Lübeck but for Schleswig-Holstein and Germany at large."