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German science reinvigorated

Nature Cell Biology volume 10, page 1 (2008) | Download Citation


With a new national science academy, an 'excellence initiative', a roadmap for clinical research and a beefed-up science budget, 2008 looks rosy for German science.

During Annette Schavan's two-year reign as Germany's science minister a number of significant developments have come to fruition, which may mark the end of an extended period of stagnant investment in science research. First, nine universities were selected from a national competition administered by the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft (DFG) and the German Science Council to attain 'elite status' — at least in terms of funding. The Universities of Konstanz, Freiburg, Göttingen and Heidelberg, RWTH Aachen, Berlin's Free University, and both of Munich's main universities will receive over 200 million euros annually from an additional investment package of 1.9 billion euros until 2011 for research and graduate education, underwritten largely by the federal government. The 'excellence initiative' will also inject part of these funds into a further twenty-one graduate schools, which will each receive 1 million euros annually, as well as 6.5 million euros annually for each of twenty 'research clusters'. This cash injection should enable German universities to beef up their research output to approach that of the Max Planck Society, which is often thought to do so well because of its disproportionately high level of funding.

Second, Germany's federal government has set out a 'High-Tech Strategy' that aims to foster strategic alliances between industry and research; the programme is set to attract almost 15 billion euros in investment by 2009 and benefits from new tax concessions. The federal budget for 2008 confirmed an unprecedented increase of 9.8% for science and education, leaving the Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with 9.35 billion euros to spend, whereas the DFG (the main research funding agency), the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association and the Fraunhofer Society will see rises of 3% — well above inflation. Overall, with 2.7% GDP invested in research and development in 2007, Germany is on course to achieve the European Community goal of 3%, although it still lags behind the top investors Sweden (3.9%) and Finland (3.7%). German science salaries are comparable with those in the UK, and are significantly more competitive than France and Italy; however, they still lag behind the US, Japan and Australia, even after adjusting for the cost of living. Indeed, Rudi Balling, scientific director of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and member of the Health Research Advisory Committee (GFR), noted that the increased research budget would not stem Germany's brain drain unless the salary differential is addressed. Nevertheless, Germany's science community seems reinvigorated — the Nature Job Special on Germany in November 2007 certainly attracted an unprecedented amount of interest, and despite the promise of home-grown funding, 1,000 of the 9,000 proposals for European Research Council grants were from Germany (almost eighty made the shortlist).

A rather laudable development is an apparent willingness of the government to consult with science practitioners for guidance on its research priorities. To this end the GFR, which advises the BMBF in matters of health research (and is composed of representatives of research organizations, hospitals, funding agencies and ministries), was asked to draft a 'roadmap' for health research. This exercise, which was informed by feedback from 900 scientists and health practitioners, was delivered to the BMBF in September 2007. The report highlighted six disease areas for prioritized study, including cancer, infectious, neurological and cardiovascular diseases. It also recommended a focus on epidemiology, clinical genomics and the development of a relevant database infrastructure, as well as encouraging translational research. Notably, it recommends increased attention to molecular diagnostics, which is to be applauded, as this area does not represent a priority to the pharmaceutical industry, despite the promise to save lives at low cost. As such, the document will bear few surprises for researchers and clinicians, but its value lies in highlighting health-relevant research to the federal and local governments. Guido Adler, chair the of the GFR, notes “the BMBF has through the roadmap facilitated a bottom-up process of science funding informed by scientists”. On the other hand, Annette Schavan has, on occasion, been quick to make pronouncements on complex science issues without too much recourse to consultation: at the end of November 2007 she commented on national television that her preference for research into adult — rather than embryonic — stem cells was vindicated by two papers demonstrating the reprogramming of human adult skin cells to attain the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. Her conviction led her, in 2006, to lobby other European Union nations to block funding for stem-cell research, as in her view “the European Union Science Program should not be used to give financial incentives to kill embryos”.

Another example of the science minister's penchant for unilateral decision-making was her announcement in November last year, in a radio interview, that she has drawn a line under a decade-long debate and decided that the Leopoldina (the world's oldest science academy, with its headquarters in Halle) should be elevated to a national academy responsible for both the natural sciences and the humanities. The pronouncement took both the Leopoldina and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities (an association of eight regional science academies set up in 1993 with the aim of becoming a single national academy) completely by surprise. Arguably in this case Schavan may well have defused a stalemate rather typical for Germany's Bundesländer- (that is, regionally) dominated political system, thereby ending protracted discussions and paving the way for something that has been long overdue: a fiercely independent, authoritative national academy, similar to the UK's Royal Society and the US national academies. As long as all regional academies contribute to the new national academy as planned, it seems appropriate to select the most venerable of Germany's academies to take on the mantle of advisory body both to the German public and politicians.

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