HEIDELBERG--A proposed overhaul of the way Germany's national research centers are funded has sparked a massive protest backed by a Nobelist and a former research minister. As the government's plan heads for a showdown later this month, more than 4300 scientists and other staffers at the centers have signed a petition denouncing the overhaul as a threat to scientific freedom.
The Helmholtz Association consists of 16 research centers with a combined $2 billion budget. Its 8000 scientists constitute Germany's biggest scientific workforce outside the universities. For 2 years, the Research Ministry has been negotiating with Helmholtz officials in an effort to wean the centers off block grants and instead fund program areas, such as biomedical research and the structure of matter, that span several centers. Germany's top scientific advisory body outlined the concept of program-oriented research in a January report (ScienceNOW, 22 January ). Research minister Edelgard Bulmahn says, "the goal is, on one hand, to increase competition among the centers that work in similar research fields, and, on the other hand, to increase cooperation."
That's not how critics see it. They argue that the reorganization would cede too much control over research specifics to the ministry. Bulmahn's predecessor, Jürgen Rüttgers, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last week that the Research Ministry "should not take the position that bureaucrats know better than the scientists." And Nobelist Günter Blobel, a German-born cell biologist at Rockefeller University in New York City, also blasted the plan in an interview in Der Spiegel magazine, saying that the concept reminds him of inflexible Soviet-style planning.
The dispute is likely to come to a boil next week, when the center directors are expected to take a position on the restructuring plan. Their stance will set the tone for a meeting on 25 May of the Helmholtz Senate. Detlev Ganten, chair of Helmholtz's Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, predicts that both groups will ratify the overhaul. Even so, some scientists are hoping to stop the juggernaut. Says cell biologist Werner Franke of the German Cancer Research Center: "We are fighting for the most precious thing we possess: the individual scientist's freedom of decision."
With reporting by Richard Stone.