In the global competition for smart minds, Germany grows its catch


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With good long-term funding prospects and attractive salaries, Germany has become a major contender in the global competition among nations to draw in top talent.

Ever since the European Council’s decision in 2000 to transform the European Union into “a competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy,” Germany’s federal government has been pumping money into research and development through various mechanisms. As a result, not only are German research institutions forging major changes in the way that researchers teach, collaborate, and advance in their careers, they are also creating more jobs. These jobs run the gamut from junior and senior researchers to support staff. With good long-term funding prospects and attractive salaries, Germany has become a major contender in the global competition among nations to draw in top talent.

In 2003, Barbara Conradt left the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany to take a job in the United States—she thought it was for good. She had accepted a tenure-track position at the Geisel School of Medicine (formerly Dartmouth Medical School), in Hanover, New Hampshire. Not only did the position offer better long-term job prospects and a supportive research community, she much preferred the openness and diversity of the American academic environment.

To the west, the state of Baden-Württemberg has been the most successful state in the Excellence Initiative competition. The state’s universities garnered a total of €545 million— the most of any state.

“I was excited about the U.S. system,” says Conradt, which she had experienced first-hand having finished both her Ph.D. and a postdoc in the United States. “I thought I would never move back to Germany,” she recalls. So it was no wonder that when a recruiter approached her in 2010 with a job opportunity at the Center for Integrated Protein Science in Munich (CIPSM), Germany, she balked. But she soon reconsidered. If she were offered the job, she thought, she would merely use it as leverage to boost her standing at Dartmouth.

Things turned out quite differently, however. “I realized that a lot had happened in Munich,” Conradt explains. The campus had grown, the university environment had become more diverse, and there were more women. “I really felt like this was a place I wanted to come back to and make a difference,” she says. CIPSM offered her a full professorship and also offered to move her entire lab over. She accepted the offer with open arms.

CIPSM was established in 2006 through Germany’s Excellence Initiative—a program that invites institutes of higher education to apply for federal grant money to fund growth in three areas: graduate programs, clusters of excellence that focus on and accelerate hot research topics, and institutional strategies (also called future concepts) that improve the institution’s quality of research and teaching. Launched in 2005, the Excellence Initiative was a bold plan to push innovation at what was seen as Germany’s inertial university system. In addition to receiving lump sum state funding, universities could now compete for additional federal funding by submitting ideas for new educational strategies, research initiatives, or collaborations that span multiple research institutes. By fostering innovation, the goal was to create “elite universities” that could compete with the world’s best universities in drawing in top talent. The first and second rounds of the initiative doled out €1.9 billion to universities between 2007 and 2012. The third and final round will award €2.7 billion to universities through 2017—a total of €4.6 billion to a total of 39 universities across 13 states.

The Excellence Initiative isn’t the only mechanism by which money is flowing into the sciences. Since the European Council’s decision in 2000 to transform the European Union into “a competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy” by 2010, Germany has increased spending on research and development dramatically—the results of which are already tangible. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of jobs in research and development grew by 15%. Not only has industry contributed to this growth by increasing research and development expenditure by 21% during the same period, the federal government upped research and development investment from €9 billion in 2005 to approximately €13.8 billion in 2012—an increase of 53%, according to the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, or BMBF).

The result has been that regions around the country that have traditionally been hubs of research and development are expanding and innovating and in the process creating new job opportunities.

The South: Bavaria

Not only can the state of Bavaria lay claim to hosting two elite universities, the Technische Universität München (TUM) and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), it can also boast winning the second highest share of award money through both Excellence Initiative rounds for a total of €370 million.

At the CIPSM—an excellence cluster set up by the TUM, the LMU, and the Max Planck Institutes of Neurobiology and Biochemistry—the focus is on protein science. The CIPSM includes three locations on the outskirts of the city of Munich—Großhadern/Martinsried, Garching, and Weihenstephan—and university physics and medicine departments in downtown Munich. The center enables scientists from LMU and TUM, as well as scientists from the neighboring Max Planck Institutes and the Helmholtz institutes, to come together and work on common research goals. Since 2007, CIPSM has received about €45 million from the Excellence Initiative and funding of the cluster has been renewed for 2012 through 2017, with a budget of approximately €7 million per year.

“I have not regretted [leaving Dartmouth] at all,” says Conradt, who studies cell apoptosis and mitochondrial dynamics in Caenorhabditis elegans. Conradt moved to CISPM at a time when NIH funding had “really dropped,” she says. Meanwhile in Germany, the federal and state governments continue to prioritize funding of research and development over the long-term, which is vital for scientific progress, she adds. Just as appealing, the academic environment in and around Munich continues to change in ways that promote diversity. For example, like most excellence clusters, CISPM’s official language is English. Teaching of the sciences at the Master’s level at CISPM’s host universities is also now conducted in English, which has really helped draw people from all over the world, she says.


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