Is It Really Just About the Money?
What does Germany have to do to attract top-flight researchers? And how can the private sector get involved? A discussion with Lorraine Daston, a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Arend Oetker, President of the Stifterverband, and Helmut Schwarz, President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
|„Germany has improved enormous-
ly“: Arend Oetker, Lorraine Daston
and Helmut Schwarz
Photo: Jens Passoth
Kosmos: Professor Daston, you taught at Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, among others, before coming to Germany. Be honest: are things really as bad here as is always claimed?
Daston: The shortest answer is: if they were so bad, I wouldn’t have come. But the research landscape in this country is very varied. Research conditions are not equally good across the board, but at the Max Planck Society, where I work, they are excellent.
Kosmos: What draws you and your colleagues from abroad to Germany?
Daston: Undoubtedly: a freedom that is not so easy to find in other countries. The higher you rise in, for example, the American academic system, the less time you have for research. You’re constantly writing applications for research funding, and I do mean constantly. And that’s probably the main reason why the Max Planck Society has succeeded in appointing so many of its directors from abroad in recent years. Salaries here are lower – but the research conditions are frequently better.
Schwarz: Look at the statistics for the Humboldt Foundation alone: in recent years, the number of outstanding postdocs who have come to Germany from the USA has increased steadily. Most of our fellows now come from the USA, and America also ranks highly in terms of the number of award winners. We are receiving more and more applications from China and India, too. The message is clear: Germany as a location for research has improved enormously, and that is being noted around the world.
Oetker: The reasons lie in the conditions in general, but also in apparently minor details. We at the Stifterverband, for example, try to offer the researchers a warm welcome. We have for years being giving awards to the best Welcome Centres at universities – the sections with which new academics first come into contact. Or the friendliest Immigration Office. When researchers are welcomed without bureaucratic hurdles and immediately receive support from their university in seeking accommodation and getting started in Germany – that kind of cordiality is remembered.
Kosmos: With all due respect for these positive developments – complaints about excessive bureaucracy and other obstacles to research are raised in Germany, too?
Daston: Oh yes, massive amounts of time are wasted at all levels here, too. I know university deans who negotiate for months with a ministry to be allowed to appoint a junior professor. That’s awful. After all, most professors want nothing more than the freedom to work for 60 to 80 hours a week. But it has to be meaningful work, not form-filling.
Schwarz: On the one hand, you’re right. On the other, you have to admit that the German academic landscape has become very heterogeneous. There are undeniably still universities where there is more monitoring than freedom. But we also have universities that can compete with the best in the world in individual fields – and at those there is often extensive autonomy.
Kosmos: You mention heterogeneity. Do you mean that we are in danger of ending up with a two-tier system, with top-flight universities on the one hand and mass universities on the other?
Schwarz: No, I don’t think there’s any danger of that. First of all, while universities in Germany are clearly underfunded, in comparison with other countries they are still in pretty good shape – across the board. And secondly, top-flight institutions don’t endanger good mass funding; they are a prerequisite for it. Outstanding academic teachers and high standards benefit the entire university. In my opinion, the conflict lies elsewhere: we have to give the really excellent people the freedoms they often have automatically in other countries.
Oetker: The Stifterverband is a great believer in tiered funding, i.e. support both on a broad scale and at the very top. We need that top tier at every level – world-class researchers just as much as dedicated teachers. The same applies here as it does to a well-managed business: what matters is that everyone plays their role – and that everyone contributes to the success of the whole.
“Most professors want nothing more than the freedom to work for 60 to 80 hours a week.”
Kosmos: Dr. Oetker, you are an entrepreneur and you have also followed higher education policy for years. In other countries, private sponsors supply a large share of the funding for universities. In Germany, these sums are comparatively small. Is the private sector in Germany doing enough?
Oetker: The private share is actually very high! Two thirds of the research and development taking place in Germany are conducted by businesses in their laboratories; universities and public research institutes account for one third. And businesses pay universities and research institutes just under two billion EUR a year for contract research and provide another two billion EUR to support teaching.
Kosmos: That’s what is known as third-party funding, where investors finance specific research contracts. But then there are also donors and patrons?
Oetker: We are definitely seeing more and more foundations being set up that invest in teaching and research, endow chairs or award fellowships. The mutual obligation between the public and the private sector works very successfully in Germany. Consider, for example, the Leading-Edge Cluster Competition, where high-performance research areas are brought up to world level: the private sector is required to provide 50 percent of the funding; the other half comes from the state. This creates enormous leverage from which everyone benefits. In my opinion, it is very important that we carefully consider, as was done here, what the private sector should and can do, and what share of funding is covered by the state
Kosmos: Prof. Daston, as an American you come from an education system where the share of private contributions to university funding has always been high. Could that be a model for Germany?
Daston: That’s something you have to examine very carefully. When, for example, Rockefeller donated a fortune to the University of Chicago in the 19th century, he did so to increase his prestige. The university was completely free to decide how the money was to be used. This type of endowment is very deeply embedded in the USA. The commercialisation of research is another matter, and is increasingly regarded with suspicion – for example, when medical faculties are supported by pharmaceutical companies and become dependent on them. These two types of funding are worlds apart! In general, private foundations are indispensable, and this is also true in Germany: they are our only opportunity to create a little freedom in this rigid system – even if they only account for a small percentage of the funding.
Schwarz: The decisive difference is between project and personal funding: do I specifically support a researcher in whom I believe? Or would I rather support a structure at a university? For almost 60 years, we at the Humboldt Foundation have chosen to put our faith in individuals, giving them the freedom to work over two or three years in a field they have defined themselves. We can boast 48 Nobel Prize Winners in our ranks, most of whom we had identified and sponsored long before they were selected by the committee in Stockholm. That shows that supporting talented people cannot be wrong.
“Is honour in academia not the same as the honour of a businessman? In a family business, we also think in generations.”
Kosmos: In the private sector, supporting the next generation has always worked very well: those who are identified as promising are systematically promoted from very early on. What can universities learn from businesses?
Oetker: When I look at the private sector, I see that it’s the diversity that generates a lot of the innovation. In modern companies, younger and older people work together, teams include a number of nationalities who contribute their respective characteristics. This is the breeding ground for innovation, and including the next generation is an indispensable part of it. Effectively, a university is based on the same principle: to combine teaching and research in such a way as to stimulate exchange. If a professor receives new inspiration every day, he or she becomes much better.
Schwarz: Another important aspect is money: businesses, of course, also retain their good people by paying attractive salaries. Universities are far more restricted in that respect; they aren’t – at least in Germany – always able to offer the same financial incentives as businesses. That’s why we finally need the Academic Freedom Act, instead of rigid salary scales, so that universities, too, can set the salaries of their researchers themselves, and set them well above the W salary bracket.
Daston: The Excellence Initiative has already achieved much. If sufficient funding is available for sophisticated research projects along with the freedom to carry them out, that attracts outstanding researchers. We have seen that with the Excellence Initiative, where that is exactly what happened. This is the type of outcome that society needs. Mr Oetker is right: when it comes to money and diversity there are parallels between the private sector and academia. But this analogy also has its limits. Salaries are important in academia, but they are never the main issue. And the way of thinking in academia is different from that in the private sector – it’s less short-term and has far greater dimensions. You have to be careful: merging too extensively with the private sector will destroy academia.
Oetker: Wait a minute, now I have to defend the private sector! Is honour in academia not the same as the honour of a businessman? I come from a family business, and we think in generations: I am the fourth generation and have been at my post for 40 years now, and I intend to pass the business on to my children. Profit is, of course, necessary if a business is to thrive, but it’s not about maximising profit at all costs! Those who gamble or cheat will not achieve lasting success.
Schwarz: Of course, this type of thinking exists in some businesses. But you mustn’t overlook the fact that, almost everywhere in the world, a wrong idea is often taking hold in business. In addition to immense expectations of profit, this also pertains to an excessive attitude to efficiency: if I specify ever shorter timescales, this contradicts the elementary principles of science, where it is important, at the very least, to be thorough and have the option of pausing, of querying – and dedicating more time to a subject where necessary.
Daston: And there is another thing that differentiates business from academia: researchers are mainly judged by their peers, and not by the market. This makes for a different ethos in the academic establishment than in the private sector.
Oetker: I would not describe the differences as quite so extreme. I admire the ethos of researchers. But that also exists at the seed company KWS Saat AG, of which I am a shareholder. When we develop seed, currently for example a new type of millet, it takes ten years until it is ready for worldwide use. Of course this enterprise is profit-oriented, but it takes a lot of time until we see results. Throughout the process I have to rely on researchers who are driven by curiosity and a desire for knowledge, and so develop the seed. I believe that shows how closely business and science are interlinked.
Kosmos: Prof. Daston, when you as a science historian look back – is this connection not one that already has a long tradition?
Daston: The surprising rise of Germany after 1850 was due mainly to the combination of scientific research and industrial production – just look at Zeiss or I.G.Farben. That was the greatest industrial revolution of the 19th century. That it took place in Germany was thanks to the level of scientific knowledge. Without science, Germany would have remained a poor country.
Kosmos: Science as the driving force for economic development – that brings us right to the heart of the debate about the skills shortage. What part can universities play in solving this problem?
Schwarz: I wish German universities would try far more proactively to attract students and young researchers from other countries, getting them to come and study or work here during a very early phase. That would make it possible to interest top-flight researchers in us very early on.
Oetker: But we’re also not yet fully taking advantage of all the talent reserves in this country. That’s why the Stifterverband is, for example, supporting universities that are working actively, creatively and long-term to develop new routes in MINT training – that is, mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology – and to open these fields of study up to new target groups.
Kosmos: In addition to targeted immigration, could better promotion of women also help address the skills shortage?
Daston: I’m constantly surprised that politics in this country is so reticent about helping young parents. Of course the situation has improved in recent years, but just look at the numbers: up to doctorate level, we educate just as many women as men – and then they leave their careers. A country with a shrinking population and a shortage of skills can’t afford that. The issue of fairness aside, it’s hugely inefficient to train so many talented people and then lose them.
“You can only ignite in others what burns in yourself. Our job is to support those in whom this fire burns.”
Kosmos: Would a women’s quota not help here?
Schwarz: The Humboldt Foundation does not use quotas in its programmes – neither for countries, nor for disciplines, age or gender. Experience has shown that far fewer women than men apply; however, the female applicants do just as well as the men, which surprises no one. Unfortunately, women are also far less frequently recommended for research awards. That is a deficit that we cannot accept. But to increase the share of women long-term, basic conditions must change in such a way that family and career are far more easy to balance than they currently are.
Oetker: It’s also a question of mentality. People have to decide for themselves how they want to live and what children mean to them. My company also manufactures baby food, so I pay close attention to birth rates in the various countries. Why, for example, is the birth rate in France so much higher than in Germany? This is indeed due first of all to societal factors and attitudes. But it is also absolutely clear that the infrastructure for childcare has to be available.
Schwarz: You’re right, it makes a huge difference whether a sufficient number of good kindergarten places are available or not. The Weizman Institute of Science in Israel, for example, has kindergartens and crèches at all levels which are open from half past six in the morning until eight o’clock in the evening; and there are practically no waiting lists. In contrast, I know of a large German research institute that has between 800 and 1,000 people on the waiting list for a place at its kindergarten. This often poses insurmountable difficulties for young families, and we are not giving these difficulties the attention they deserve.
Kosmos: Regardless of the gender issue, it is apparent that fewer and fewer young people are choosing natural science and engineering degree courses. How can we counteract this?
Schwarz: In my experience, this is partly due to the fact that research is not exempt from saturation. The former Soviet Union was a country where mathematics and theoretical physics were held in the highest regard – with the result that these countries made outstanding contributions to research. That has collapsed almost completely because young people in these subjects no longer receive the same recognition and support today that they once did. Nowadays, they are more likely to become economists or bankers, or go into the entertainment industry. Societal developments like this, of course, also affect young researchers. But at universities I nonetheless regularly see that there are still young people who follow the Augustinian principle: You can only ignite in others what burns in yourself. Our job is to support those in whom this fire burns.
Interview: Kilian Kirchgeßner and Georg Scholl
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