Humboldt University in Berlin, one of the 'elite' institutions favoured by Germany's Excellence Initiative. Credit: Heike Zappe/ Humboldt University

For a decade, Germany’s government has tried to explode the myth that all the country’s universities are equal. In 2006, it launched an 11-year, €4.6-billion (US$5-billion) programme that aimed to make the best German universities more competitive with the likes of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. The campaign, called the Excellence Initiative, led to 14 institutions gaining the common — although unofficial — label of ‘elite’.

A 3 September report by Germany’s main research-funding agency, the DFG — which administers the initiative together with Germany's science council — suggests that the cash influx is paying off. Still, a German equivalent of the US Ivy League may be slow to form. An analysis by Nature’s news team shows that some universities less favoured by the initiative have improved just as quickly as the elites when it comes to generating highly cited research. “It doesn’t require the ‘elite’ label to produce good research in Germany,” says Alfred Forchel, president of the University of Würzburg — an institution that has kept pace without massive top-up funds. 

The DFG sees this as positive. “The Excellence Initiative has met expectations,” says Dorothee Dzwonnek, the agency’s secretary-general. “And it has not weakened universities which don’t directly benefit from it.” But some critics say that the scheme has benefited administrators more than scientists. In addition, a huge increase in research funding across Germany over the past decade makes it difficult to tease out the influence of the initiative on the country’s improvement.

Credit: Nature/Scival

The favoured few?

The DFG report, an analysis of funding in German universities that is released every three years, marks the first attempt to measure preliminary outcomes of the initiative. In 2011–13 alone, 45 universities across Germany received a total of more than €1 billion for running international graduate schools and setting up specific clusters of excellence. A subset of these universities also each received an extra €10 million to €14 million a year for 'institutional strategies' to strengthen the university as a whole — the most prestigious part of the funding competition.

The elite group includes some of Germany’s largest and best-equipped research universities, such as the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and RWTH Aachen University. The report shows that the elites dominate when it comes to winning competitive grants from the DFG. As a group, they secured more than 40% of the agency’s funding total from 2011–13. However, the same 14 institutions won almost the same share of DFG funding in 2002–04, before the initiative had launched.

Scientific output is booming at the 45 universities that got cash out of the Excellence Initiative, the DFG report points out. They have boosted their output by 43% in chemistry and physics since 2002, more than the 34% increase in these subjects by all German universities. And a further analysis by Nature finds that the 14 elites alone now produce 35% of Germany’s total articles, up from a share of 29% in 2002.

The rest chase the best

But the Excellence Initiative may not be separating the elites from the rest when it comes to the quality of research papers. Nature's analysis shows that almost one-quarter of articles from Germany’s elites are now in the world’s top 10% by citations — up from one-sixth 12 years ago. Yet it also shows that some other German universities that received much less funding, or no top-up funds, have matched this rise (see ‘Germany rising’). That is enlightening, says Karl Ebeling, president of the University of Ulm, which had little success in the initiative but is higher in some international rankings than elite universities in Bremen and Konstanz, for instance.

Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg, thinks that the unclear impact of the initiative on creating elites is because the cash was poorly spent. He has delved into German employment statistics and found evidence, he says, of booming academic bureaucracy. “For every scientist who has been recruited thanks to the Excellence Initiative, four new administrative positions were created,” he says. “It is hardly surprising that elite institutions have no research advantage over some other universities when the group that benefits most from the Excellence Initiative is not involved in science.”

The DFG says that it has not looked at how the programme may have burdened university administrations. “It has attracted 4,000 talented foreign scientists to German universities and it has greatly increased these universities’ scholarly output,” says Dzwonnek. “From our point of view, this is a real success.” 

Indeed, many agree that the competition, despite ambiguity over its measurable impacts, has served German science well. It was a positive shock to Germany’s structurally conservative science system, says Jakob Edler, executive director of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, UK.

The results of a comprehensive evaluation of the Excellence Initiative by an international panel of experts are due in January 2016. The federal government and Germany’s 16 states, which have tentatively agreed to continue the programme, will then decide about its future. “The Excellence Initiative promotes fresh ideas and new collaborations. I do hope it continues beyond 2017,” Forchel says.