BERLIN—A political impasse may cause "irreparable harm to the German research system," if it isn't solved soon, the heads of three German science organizations warned today. Politicians need to start making some important decisions in the weeks ahead, according to the rare joint statement by Peter Strohschneider of the German Research Foundation, Horst Hippler of the German Rectors’ Conference, and Wolfgang Marquardt of the German Council of Science and Humanities. "Otherwise the research system and the education of more than 2.5 million students in Germany will suffer further and greater harm … that cannot be undone,” the trio wrote in their letter (in German), released at a press conference here.
German science has enjoyed a remarkable windfall the past decade. Since Angela Merkel, a physicist, took office as chancellor in 2005, investment in science has increased continuously. In 2012, public and private spending combined, at €79.5 billion, reached 3% of the gross domestic product for the first time. The Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation has provided substantial budget hikes for nonuniversity organizations like the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association, and the €4.6 billion Excellence Initiative has introduced a new element of competition into German universities by making them vie for the title "elite university.”
But most of these programs are set to run out in the coming years, and German scientists are anxious about the future. Federal research minister Annette Schavan stepped down in February last year after losing her Ph.D. in a plagiarism scandal; her successor, mathematician Johanna Wanka, has given little indication so far of what her plans are.
One problem is that the German constitution forbids the federal government from providing long-term funding to universities; that responsibility lies with the 16 states. In their appeal today, the three science managers called for a constitutional change to make long-term federal funding possible. Wilhelm Krull, secretary-general of the Volkswagen Foundation, a large private research funder in Germany, says that big investments are needed to update the infrastructure in German universities. “Many buildings are literally crumbling,” he says, and more money will be needed for educating the rising number of students and for digitalization. “If the states have to pay for all that, some of it just won’t happen,” Krull says.
Wanka agrees. In a recent interview, she told ScienceInsider that "changing the constitution is one of my major goals for this legislative period,” but acknowledged it would be difficult to achieve because state politicians resent federal encroachment on their turf.
There is also disagreement about how the €6 billion for education and research that the coalition has promised to the states will be used. While the states want the money without any strings attached, federal politicians prefer to earmark some of it for universities. Indeed, a "substantial part” of the money should go to universities, which have fallen behind in basic research, the authors of today's appeal say. They also want the programs started under Schavan, including the Excellence Initiative, to be continued in some form.
The appeal is important because it will increase the pressure on politicians to end the deadlock, Krull says. "All this political maneuvering is leading to a lot of uncertainty in the research community,” he says. Krull is worried that some of the most talented scientists may strike out for other countries where the funding situation is clearer. "There is not as much time as some politicians seem to think.”
*Clarification, 20 May, 8:58 a.m.: Angela Merkel is best referred to as a physicist, not a chemist, as previously reported. She has a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, but studied physics.