Germany's vaunted research system may be too rigid for its own good. Critics have accused it of being overly hierarchical and slow to respond to hot research areas, and complained that it tends to hold back some young researchers by keeping them under the thumb of older professors. Last week, an international panel of prominent scientists echoed some of those gripes and went on to suggest a raft of reforms that aim to achieve more flexibility, greater cooperation between research institutes and universities, and give postdocs considerably more independence.
The report was requested by the Federal-State Commission for Education Planning and Research Promotion (BLK), which represents research and higher education ministries at the state and national level. After its yearlong inquiry, the 10-member panel--led by materials scientist Richard Brook, chief executive of Britain's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council--recommended last week that the traditionally independent Max Planck Society forge closer ties to universities and develop research groups that can respond more quickly to rapid new developments in science.
Universities, in turn, should replace the post-Ph.D. "habilitation" qualification for aspiring professors--a lengthy process during which postdocs do major projects under the strict supervision of professors--with something like the U.S.-style "assistant professor" system. Brook says the panel found that Germany's DFG granting agency has "a conservative nature" that could be more actively steering researchers and grant money toward areas of research that it deems important. It also recommends opening up the DFG's peer-review system--for example, by including more women and younger researchers as reviewers.
The DFG's president, biochemist Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, says his organization has already set up new funding programs for independent young scientists and is expanding its roster of peer reviewers. And the Max Planck Society said it has already taken steps to strengthen its connections to universities and to bolster its programs for young researchers. The society plans to establish several "International Max Planck Research Schools" near universities, increasing the number of Ph.D. students who conduct research at its institutes.