The reasons why Germany is a world leader in areas such as renewable energy and climate

Sometimes it is useful to reflect on why there is success in certain fields. Alison Abbott writes an excellent article on the Nature website about the reasons why Germany is doing so well in certain sustainable energy fields. What do you think?


The secret to Germany’s scientific excellence

Under the watch of Angela Merkel, Germany has invested heavily in energy innovation.

Ask any German researcher why the country’s science base is blooming, and they are bound to mention Chancellor Angela Merkel. The world’s most powerful woman, they say, has not forgotten her roots as an East German physicist.

During a decade of global financial turbulence, her government has increased annual science budgets in a stable, predictable, quintessentially German way. It has spurred competition among universities and improved collaboration with the country’s unique publicly funded research institutions. Under Merkel’s watch, Germany has maintained its position as a world leader in areas such as renewable energy and climate; and with the guarantee of strong support for basic research, its impact in other sectors has grown.

Foreign researchers are increasingly choosing to make their careers in Germany rather than opting for traditional brain magnets such as the United States or the United Kingdom. With its safe-but-dull reputation, Germany is starting to look like the tortoise to their hare. And as the country prepares for a national election on 24 September, most onlookers expect the trends to continue.

The reasons behind Germany’s success go beyond science budgets or some sort of ‘Merkel effect’, says Wolfgang Schön, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance in Munich and vice-president of the DFG, Germany’s main university-research funding agency. Like Merkel, the country has deep science roots, he says.

Germany was a world leader in science and technology before the turbulence of the twentieth century; it established traditions that many countries still follow. Although it struggles with the remnants of male-dominated hierarchies and pervasive, inflexible regulations, German research is looking as strong as ever, particularly on a global stage that seems increasingly indifferent to science. “I’d love it if our science-policy and budget decision-makers in the US were willing to take lessons from Germany again today,” says Kenneth Prewitt, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York City.




The structure of modern German science rests on concepts developed two centuries ago by Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian educator who pioneered ideas that continue to hold sway around the world. It was he, for example, who suggested that university professors should do front-line research as well as teaching.

His philosophy that education should be both broad and deep, and that academic life should be free from politics and religion, remains engraved in the German psyche. “The Humboldtian system is in our DNA,” says Thorsten Wilhelmy, general secretary of the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study. “That’s why politicians are not so tempted to cut basic research when times get tough.” (See ‘Build, link and trust’.)

Build, link and trust

The German higher-education and research system seems to be in good shape. The country is near the top of global league tables in terms of output, publication quality, and numbers of students and faculty members from abroad (see ‘Germany by the numbers’). So why worry about the future? My reasons for concern relate to the political conditions under which universities and research organizations will have to operate in the 2020s. And, from my experience as director of Germany’s largest private funder of basic research, I feel that it is essential to establish more sustainable, long-term alliances with leading research institutions in other countries — in particular with universities from the Southern Hemisphere.

In 2020, a policy called Schuldenbremse or ‘debt brake’ is set to roll out in most German states. Agreed by the federal government and the 16 state governments in 2009, this will put a strict upper limit on budget deficits and prevent them from making new debts, especially at the state level. If implemented as planned, universities will struggle to maintain or refurbish their infrastructure, let alone acquire new buildings or facilities. Current estimates are that some €35 billion (US$41.2 billion) is needed until 2025 just to keep existing lecture halls and laboratories fit for purpose. Meeting these challenges will require the next federal government to make a strong financial commitment to the university sector.

Policymakers at every level must widen their objectives considerably in terms of what a resilient higher-education and research system should achieve. This was discussed earlier this year by the Hightech Forum, a government advisory body on which I sit. Two actions are urgent: to speed up the process of digitization in every domain of education; and to provide the research base to advance the wider use of artificial intelligence. The next government must also build on the considerable progress made in internationalizing the student and research communities. Germany will need to expand its foreign policies to integrate transnational innovation policies, including conceptual inputs to the European Union’s next Framework programme.

Ultimately, the goal of all higher-education and research management must be to open up time and space for critical as well as creative thinking, to stimulate bold ideas and to aid movement beyond incremental achievements towards radical innovations. Policymakers, politicians, presidents, rectors and researchers must work together towards the high-trust culture of creativity that Germany and others are trying to achieve.


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