German scientists hope for windfall from incoming government

Research budget could rise to 3.5% of gross domestic product if agreement struck during coalition talks holds.
Delegates of Germany's social democratic SPD party hold up their voting cards during SPD party congress in Germany on 21.01.2018

Social Democratic party delegates in Germany voted on 21 January to join a governing coalition that promises to splurge on science spending.Credit: Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty

German politicians seem close to agreeing on a coalition government that would further boost federal funds for research — cementing the country’s status as one of the world’s biggest science spenders.

Political negotiations have been ongoing for four months since an inconclusive general election last September. In that election, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gained the largest share of seats but no outright majority, and the Social Democratic party (SPD) — Merkel’s coalition partner in the last government — came second, and vowed to oppose the CDU rather than support it in government. After talks between the CDU and smaller parties broke down, the SPD voted on 21 January to seek to enter a coalition government again.

The parties have already set out the policy cornerstones of their coalition agreement in a paper leaked to the press on 12 January. These include injecting at least an extra €2 billion (US$2.5 billion) of federal spending into Germany’s science system over the coming years, in a bid to increase the country’s overall research spending from just under 3% of gross domestic expenditure to 3.5% by 2025. This increase would bring Germany into third place globally on the proportion spent on research and development, behind only Israel and South Korea. But the German goal relies on contributions from the nation’s 16 state governments and industry to increase spending, as well as the federal government.

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During Merkel’s 12-year chancellorship, federal science spending has almost doubled. Moreover, an agreement in 2005 between the federal government and state governments guaranteed annual budget increases of at least 3% at the country’s main science organizations — including the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres and the German Research Foundation (DFG), Germany’s main grant-giving agency for university research.

“All the indications are that research support remains a top government priority in many fields,” says Otmar Wiestler, president of the Helmholtz Association in Berlin. “That’s very encouraging. Planning security is a prerequisite for us to be able to develop strategic research activities in key areas such as mobility, climate change, energy supply, personal medicine and information technology.”

However, low public acceptance of genetic engineering in plants and the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture remains a concern, says Jörg Hacker, president of the Leopoldina, Germany’s National Academy of Sciences in Halle. “Germany needs a bioscience agenda,” he says. “A technology-friendly society should be open to the potential of advances such as CRISPR-Cas technology.”

The coalition partners have promised to improve funding opportunities for basic research into pressing societal challenges, including energy, health, mobility and security. Details have yet to be announced, but many scientists hope that the government might create a federal funding agency for blue-skies research.

The parties have also already set out plans to increase wind and solar energy capacity by about 10% by 2020. Germany currently meets about one-third of its electricity demand from wind, solar, hydro and biomass sources — slightly more than the EU average. But it is currently expected to miss its goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 40% relative to 1990 levels by 2020, and experts say that it seems unrealistic to get to 55% by 2030, as intended. Coalition partners have said that they will strive to produce at least 65% of Germany’s power generation with renewable energy sources by 2030 — twice current levels — and they have announced a legislative initiative to make Germany’s climate and energy targets legally binding.

Nature 553, 388 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01026-0
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