Neumayer Station III seen lit up at night on a snowy plain

Neumayer Station III, on Antarctica, is part of the Helmholtz-run Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Credit: Stefan Christmann/AWI/CC-BY 4.0

Germany’s largest research organization is funding top-notch science, but it needs to employ more foreign and female researchers — and it is failing to leverage ‘big data’, such as electronic medical records.

These are the conclusions emerging from a first-of-its-kind evaluation of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, which employs some 30,000 scientists and technicians at 18 centres and has an annual budget of €4.5 billion (US$5.3 billion).

Helmholtz shared with Nature the results of the review, which individual centres will release over the next few weeks.

The results will serve as the basis for a strategic evaluation next year, which will be used to allocate research funding from 2021 to 2027. Other leading science organizations rarely, if ever, conduct such sweeping reviews, says neuroscientist Otmar Wiestler, the president of the association.

Disciplined analysis

“We were very impressed by the quality of the science,” says Andrew Harrison, chief executive of Diamond Light Source at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Didcot, UK. He was one of more than 600 independent scientists from 27 countries who, between October 2017 and April 2018, spent up to a full week in Germany assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s national research centres.

“As everywhere, the gender balance could be much better — but Helmholtz is aware of this and committed to improve it,” adds Harrison.

In many fields — including biomedical research, condensed matter physics and materials sciences — Helmholtz centres rank among the world’s top institutes by quality of basic science and research infrastructures, reviewers concluded. Energy research and the Earth and environmental sciences also received high marks.

In biomedical research, reviewers endorsed the organization’s current focus on infectious diseases, diabetes, dementia and cancer. But specialized health research centres in Munich, Braunschweig, Bonn and Heidelberg must make better use of patient data to develop new diagnostic tools and therapies, the review concludes. It also recommends that the centres establish more designated clinical-trial units, in collaboration with hospitals, to take discoveries from the bench to practice.

“Reviewers have clearly seen that Germany is lagging behind in digital medicine,” says Wiestler. “It is absolutely vital for health research and health care in this country that we catch up.”

A challenge to do better

Reviewers also urged the organization to boost diversity. Efforts to that effect are already under way, says Wiestler. A €5.4-million initiative, which was launched last year to recruit more female scientists, aims to increase the proportion of women in senior positions, from 19% currently to 24% by 2020.

To attract more foreign scientists — the organization currently employs around 6,000 — Helmholtz plans to establish an international research school in astronomy, in partnership with the National University of General San Martín in Buenos Aires, and another in energy research, with five partner institutes in Israel. A prototype research school in cancer biology was recently launched in partnership with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

“I’m impressed by the seriousness of how Helmholtz is thinking about diversity and gender equity”, says reviewer Meigan Aronson, a condensed-matter physicist at Texas A&M University in College Station. “And yet, like almost everywhere in science, real equity may still be generations away.”

Most Helmholtz centres also operate large research infrastructure, including light, ion and neutron sources; an experimental fusion reactor; marine research vessels and aircraft; satellite systems; and Germany's Antarctic research station.

These facilities are Helmholtz’s strongest asset, says Aronson, who spent a week last December helping to review neutron and nuclear research at the Helmholtz centre in Jülich.

Beam time at these and other Helmholtz physics centres is in high demand. For example, an electron–positron collider called DESY, in Hamburg, and the synchrotron-radiation sources named BESSY are used by scientists around the world to probe the structure of matter and experimental materials. Overall, almost 4,500 guest scientists spent time at Helmholtz centres in 2017. A €1.5-billion international accelerator facility for research with antiprotons and ions in Darmstadt, due to open around 2025, will add to Helmholtz’s appeal, says Aronson.

Results of the extensive review will be analysed by Helmholtz leadership in the coming months. But already, says Harrison, the meticulously planned exercise has set a new standard for the evaluation of science. “Reviewers are sometimes confronted with science organizations that don’t completely engage with the process,” he says. “Here we went away with the feeling that every stone we could think of was turned over.”