Germany's premier basic research organization, the Max Planck Society, released a long-awaited blueprint for change during its annual meeting this week, recommending that the society's nearly 3000 scientists embrace more interdisciplinary and international projects in a range of new research priorities.
In the half-century since Max Planck rose, reconstituted from the ashes of World War II, it has created a loosely knit empire of 78 institutes. Each institute is built around a handful of top researchers who have been given ample resources and considerable independence. Although that formula has produced excellent science--Max Planck scientists have won 10 Nobel Prizes since 1984--some critics contend that it has prevented the society from reacting quickly enough to sudden changes in the scientific landscape and has isolated its researchers from Germany's university system and from colleagues at other institutes (Science, 4 June 1999, p. 1595 ).
Since becoming president of the Munich-based Society 4 years ago, biologist Hubert Markl has sought to address such concerns. He has, for instance, required more frequent outside evaluations of institutes and hired more researchers on short-term contracts. The new blueprint, says Markl, will make the institutes "perhaps a little less independent, but much better interconnected with other research groups."
The report, called Max Planck 2000-Plus, is the product of an 18-month-long internal review. Its recommendations were formulated by some two dozen Max Planck researchers and administrators, who sought input from every institute.
Noting that "competitive, high-tech research is, in many cases, beyond the scope of one or several institutes," the 2000-Plus report seeks to remedy that flaw by having scientists develop "an even more intensive collaboration" with universities and other research outfits. Toward that end, Markl says, Max Planck will soon launch the first nine International Research Schools--operated with German universities--for Ph.D. students, many from outside Germany.
To cope with the data flood from "big science" efforts such as the international Human Genome Project, the report urges the rapid development of bioinformatics research at various institutes and multidisciplinary teams spanning several institutes and including other organizations.
These changes, once implemented, could whittle away a researcher's ivory tower independence, Markl concedes. But he thinks the trade-off--more collaborations and an influx of young minds--will spur a new era of creativity. "The most important driving force," he says, "will be the increasing mobility of scientists, especially young researchers, across borders and among institutions."