Incoming government likely to make major changes in German science that will be felt around the world

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

The dust has not yet settled from Germany’s 27 September elections, but the results indicate that the incoming government is going to make some major changes in German science that will be felt around the world.

Those changes would include new tax breaks for companies investing in research and development, more freedom on biotechnology issues, and a much more open attitude toward nuclear power.

The main reason for the upcoming changes is the impending exit of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), in power the past 11 years, first with the Greens from 1998 through 2005 under SPD leader and Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der. During the past four years the SPD has shared power in an often unhappy Grand Coalition with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU party.

Merkel in coming days will begin coalition discussions with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), whose party leaders strongly support biotechnology, embryonic stem cell research and nuclear power. The FDP during the election campaign strongly advocated tax cuts, with Merkel also staking out a lower tax position.

Utz Tillmann, managing director of the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI), which has for years lobbied hard for tax breaks for R&D investment, appealed to the incoming government to quickly take steps to improve the international competitiveness of Germany’s chemicals sector. ’In the first 100 days the new government should show signs that it will legislate better basic conditions for industry,’ he says.

In addition to tax breaks, Tillmann would also like to see federal energy and climate protection research policies - currently divided mostly between the Economics and the Environment ministries - combined under one ministry.

While Tillmann expressed ’hope’ that tax cuts are on the way, Wolfram Koch, executive director of the German Chemical Society (GDCh) in Frankfurt, is much more optimistic, telling Chemistry World: ’I think it will happen and it certainly is a good thing if it happens.’

Bargaining chips

The FDP, which in many past elections collected less than 10 per cent of the vote, this time surged to 14.6 per cent compared to only 33.8 per cent for Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This means FDP leaders enter coalition talks with the CDU/CSU in a strong position to push their agenda, which has potential for a big impact on German science.

Koch notes that while there is sometimes internal disagreement within the CDU/CSU and SPD parties on controversial science issues, such as genetically modified crops and embryonic stem cell research, the FDP stands unified in supporting new technologies. ’The central theme they follow is to give science as much freedom as possible,’ he says.

Merkel, who studied physics as a university undergraduate and whose doctoral thesis was on quantum chemistry, wants to reverse Germany’s plans to shut down nuclear power plants, a move the SPD strongly resisted. Koch believes FDP’s support for nuclear power is ’even stronger’ than CDU/CSU’s support.

Koch does not see any major looming changes for universities from the new government. Many programmes, including the so-called German elite university programme, Higher Education Pact, and Pact for Research and Innovation, were covered over the next five to 10 years under an agreement approved in June. ’So there is a certain stability here,’ Koch says.

One major question mark is the fate of current Research and Education Minister Annette Schavan, a member of Merkel’s CDU party. FDP leaders have been quoted in the German press expressing interest in appointing an FDP member as research minister.

Christian Herbst, Research Ministry spokesman, while noting that Schavan has said she would like to keep the job, says: ’It is an absolute open question. It is a new coalition and all ministries will have to be discussed.’

He is much more certain on the need for tax incentives for firms investing in R&D, saying that both the CDU/CSU and FDP are in agreement on the issue, adding: ’It was not even possible to introduce this as discussion (with the SPD) in the Grand Coalition.’