Experts evaluate German science funding initiative

Germany’s Excellence Initiative, aimed at promoting world-class science at German universities, has been evaluated by an international commission of experts. They give the measure good marks but also point to a number of shortcomings that will have to be addressed in future.

The Excellence Initiative was agreed between the federal government and the German states in July 2005. Its objective is to simultaneously support top-flight research and enhance Germany’s higher education system as a whole while raising Germany’s international competitiveness in science and research, drawing attention to peak performance in certain areas.

The 10-member Commission of International Experts on the Evaluation of the Excellence Initiative, or IEKE, comprising senior academics from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, studied the results of the initiative over the last 10 years and presented its results on 29 January.

“The Excellence Initiative has succeeded in starting a process of structural change at universities, promoting top-level research and fostering internationalisation,” its chairman, Dieter Imboden, president of the former Swiss National Science Foundation, states. Imboden maintains that German universities are on the right course, but that “they still have a long way to go to reach their goal”.

The Excellence Initiative incorporates three funding lines. Funding of graduate schools is aimed at facilitating the training of PhD candidates in selected areas by providing excellent supervisors and conditions and concentrating on research conducted by the candidates themselves.

Support is also provided for clusters of excellence, which focus on an institution’s research in a broadly defined area of topics. Researchers who have demonstrated excellence are brought together to work on an issue of social or economic relevance. An overall impact of these activities in the institution is desired.

Institutional strategies describe long-term developments in research, an institution’s focus on certain areas, its overall goal and how it aims to attain this goal. Candidates for support for institutional strategies should have at least one graduate school and one excellence cluster.

More dynamic

IEKE stresses that the initiative has made the higher education system more dynamic, with institutions demonstrating a will to improve international competitiveness.

In all, €4.6 billion (US$5.1 billion) was spent in the period under review. IEKE suggests that any continuation of the programme would have to be supported with at least the present level of funding, which is €500 million a year.

IEKE points to “impressive qualitative performance” regarding publications from excellence clusters, although it also stresses a marked difference in terms of quality between universities across Germany as a whole.

Regarding governance, it sees increased collective identity and understanding in many participating universities and notes that higher education legislation at state level has been influenced, resulting also in improvements in the institutional framework of the German system.

On the other hand, IEKE refers to the excellence clusters being prone to developing into separate entities within an institution. And it stresses that the initiative has had no impact on the situation of junior scientists, and that it may even have been counterproductive in this respect.

More postdoc positions have been created than permanent positions, implying that the decision for junior scientists to opt for a full academic career is merely postponed. Also, it has already been a criticism in the past that larger numbers of junior academics are not necessarily conducive to the core goals of the initiative since they are only starting with their research activities.

Nevertheless, if this funding line is cancelled, compensatory funding will have to be provided by the federal and the state governments to secure the supply of 'new blood' for higher education.

Overall recommendation

The commission’s overall recommendation for the initiative is that it should focus even more on its central goals of strengthening world-class research and improving international competitiveness.

In future, there should be only two funding lines. IEKE recommends that funding for the graduate schools be discontinued in the programme’s framework. Regarding excellence clusters, the design should provide more scope for smaller disciplines. Funding ought to be awarded purely on the basis of scientific excellence.

For the remaining funding line focusing on strategies for the future, IEKE recommends that additional funding be provided for management measures to encourage differentiation, but that this should be solely through past merit.

In the system so far, universities elaborate concepts for the future, often amounting to declarations of intent on how they would reform research and teaching with the money provided. “This procedure only encourages a tendency towards pledges that are not fulfilled,” Imboden notes.

The ruling Christian Democrat/Christian Social/Social Democrat coalition has already announced that it intends to continue substantial funding of scientific excellence beyond 2017, when the present programme comes to an end. There has been mention of a further €5 billion for five years.

However, a decision on this is yet to be taken by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and the chief ministers of the federal states. While such funding levels correspond broadly with what IEKE suggests, it stresses that there ought to be an annual automatic increase in funding because rising costs would otherwise result in de facto smaller annual budgets.

“We can’t copy Princeton or Harvard,” says Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, putting the sums involved into perspective. Hippler maintains that a single university could attain world-class level if the entire Excellence Initiative funding were spent on it for a period of two years – and if such funding levels were then maintained.

Michael Gardner Email: