Published online 23 December 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.696

News: Q&A

German science benefits from pensioner power

Immunologist Klaus Rajewsky tells Alison Abbott why he is returning to his home country at the age of 74.

Klaus RajewskyAt 74, immunologist Klaus Rajewsky sees no need to retire.Max Delbrück Centre

Immunologist Klaus Rajewsky is best known for his work developing the genetic technique in mice known as conditional gene knock-out, which allows the researcher to switch specific genes off and on in particular tissues at will. When he hit 65 in 2001, Rajewsky didn't feel ready to retire from the University of Cologne. But German law required him to, so he moved across the Atlantic to the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Now, at the age of 74, he has accepted an offer to return to Germany as a group leader at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. Rajewsky tells Alison Abbott how that happened, why he now sees his home country as a good place to do research, and how more of Germany's pensioner-scientist diaspora may be following in his footsteps.

Was there really no opportunity to continue your work in Germany after your 65th birthday, even though you were publishing regularly?

I was offered the opportunity to continue research as emeritus professor if I got grant money, but in a small lab space and subject to approval by the faculty at short intervals. You can't do serious research under such conditions, because to attract young scientists to your group you have to be able to offer them a future. In any case, there was a general feeling in German universities that when you retire, you should retire properly and make way for new people: I was worried that I would be asked to leave after a few years, and then I'd end up with nothing.

How did you end up going to Harvard Medical School?

Colleagues over there with whom I'd had long collaborations wanted to recruit me, and in the end Harvard offered me a tenured professorship. I hadn't anticipated this. In fact, I had been planning to continue full time as programme coordinator of the Mouse Biology Programme of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at Monterotondo near Rome, which I had been directing part time. But I knew I'd have more time for my research if I went to Boston, so in the end that is what I decided to do. Harvard Medical School gave me a position 'without a time limit' — dependent only on getting research grants.

Has your time there been successful?

Yes, even though I was nervous of going. For me, it was a big jump into the unknown, because I'd never worked in the United States. It took a lot of hard work, but I was quickly able to build up a lab as large as the one I'd had in Germany — more than 20 people — and it was easy to get grants from different sources. I've made a lot of progress in my research on the basic immunology and the pathogenesis of lymphomas [a common blood cancer]. And in 2003, we began pioneering work on the role of microRNAs [short stretches of RNA which don't encode proteins but have gene-regulatory roles] in the development and function of the immune system. I've been collaborating with my son Nikolaus on this since the beginning. He is head of systems biology at the Max Delbrück Centre.

What have you particularly enjoyed during your time at Harvard Medical School?

In retrospect, going to Boston was the best decision I could have made. It widened my scientific horizons enormously, thanks to the extraordinary concentration of fantastic colleagues there. The Boston area is a unique and rich scientific world. I also learnt what it means to work in a truly international environment where everyone feels at home, whichever continent they come from. I like it that people here are task oriented rather than being hung up on hierarchies. I like it that they focus on what needs to be done, are enthusiastic about it, and don't complain.

“The German government is investing more in research, and the environment seems to be getting more flexible.”

Klaus Rajewsky
Harvard Medical School

So why are you leaving?

It isn't easy to leave. As we say in German, I'm going with one eye laughing and the other crying. But things are changing on both sides of the Atlantic. One reason it was relatively easy to be employed here is that the costs for the institution are limited. You bring in your own grant money which covers your overheads. But now that — relatively speaking — there is so much less money in the US science system, it is becoming harder to get grants. And if it gets even harder, as looks likely, then the psychology here will change and fights for money will become unpleasant.

My work is very expensive because of all the mouse lines we have. We really need institutional money to keep these going — not a string of short-term National Institutes of Health grants which will become ever more difficult to get renewed.

On the other hand, it seems that the German government is investing more in research, and the environment seems to be getting more flexible. I have been made a wonderful offer by the Max Delbrück Centre in Berlin. It is an open-ended contract timewise, like my position in Boston has been, dependent on evaluation every five years. There is also generous institutional support for my mice and for scientific and technical staff. Since I left Germany, more sources of competitive grants have emerged in the country and in Europe generally. I have just won a €2.5-million (US$3.3-million) European Research Council grant to investigate the development of tumours in the immune system, which I will bring with me to the Max Delbrück Centre, where I already have a collaboration in this area. And of course I will enjoy continuing the microRNA collaboration with my son on the same turf.

ADVERTISEMENT

What do you think has changed the German research environment since you left the country in 2001?

When I left, the German research environment was beginning to become less rigid and hierarchical. This process is clearly accelerating.

There was a dramatic change in atmosphere when the federal research ministry launched its 'Excellence Initiative' in 2005, which invited universities to compete for the title 'elite' by establishing strong research clusters and graduate schools. After that, whenever I visited, I was struck by a new collaborative, but also competitive, spirit, as scientists passionately threw themselves into developing these new structures. It was a very positive thing. I hope this is followed by a greater mobility of German researchers and a higher number of foreign researchers, more similar to what I experienced in the United States. And I think this is starting slowly to happen.

Do you think the rules about retirement in German universities should change?

Those who want to continue research and can demonstrate that they are competent should be given opportunities. As I have learnt to my advantage, it is possible for institutions to offer good positions to those over retirement age. If they really want to, they can find a way. And there seems to be a trend to do so. I was the first, but I just heard that negotiations are going on with others who may be persuaded to return, at least at the Max Delbrück Centre. 

Commenting is now closed.