Three pronged package increases funding for Germany's research institutes and universities

Researchers and university officials in Germany are celebrating after federal and state politicians approved hefty spending increases for three major science and education programmes. 

The package, approved 4 June at a meeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel (who holds a PhD in physical chemistry) and the prime ministers of Germany’s 16 states, will inject a combined total of €18 billion (£15.7 billion) into research and higher education during the coming decade.

While Research and Education Minister Annette Schavan hailed the package as a major step forward for German science, Wolfram Koch, executive director of the German Chemical Society (GDCh) in Frankfurt, was more circumspect. ’It can always be better,’ he told Chemistry World, noting that spending increases for science proposed earlier this year by US President Barack Obama were much more substantial. ’But it is a step in the right direction,’ he adds, saying that it will help Germany remain in the global group of top chemistry nations.

Three strands

The spending package is split across three separate programmes. The first is the Excellence Initiative, started in 2006 with an initial budget of a €1.9 billion to help create a German ’Ivy League’ of internationally acclaimed universities. The programme, now with eight so-called ’elite’ universities, was extended by five years through to 2017 with an additional €2.7 billion.

Koch notes that chemistry related programs were big winners in the first five years of the Excellence Initiative and he sees that continuing in the next rounds of funding. ’I trust that my colleagues will be able to submit competitive applications.’

The second leg of the package is the Higher Education Pact, which officially started in 2007 to provide funding for universities and technical schools to add 91,370 students by 2010 compared with 2005 enrolments. Federal and state leaders have now agreed to fund the second phase of the program from 2011-15, with €7.9 billion to be invested toward a target of 275,000 additional students by 2019. The extra money is particularly important for ’expensive’ disciplines like chemistry, says Koch.

The last part of the package is the Pact for Research and Innovation, approved in 2005 to bolster Germany’s four national scientific institutions: the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association, the Leibniz Association and the Max Planck Society. Under last week’s agreement, the institutions will receive around €7.5 billion in 2011-15 toward the goal of increasing annual budgets by 5 per cent each year.

Koch says that Schavan’s statement on the 2011-15 Pact suggests that some of the funding could go towards creation of new research centres at the institutes. A prime field for new centres would be the energy sector, including photovoltaics, he says.

Political posturing

The funding approvals came despite concerns that financing the package could be difficult during a global financial crisis already weighing heavily on Germany’s export-oriented economy. German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück had suggested postponing the decision until after federal elections this autumn - triggering howls of protest from scientists and educators.

Steinbrück’s concerns might be justified, but there also was an element of politics involved in his comments. He is a member of the centre-left SPD party, which shares power in a coalition government with Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU party. It is a shaky alliance that most political observers do not expect to survive the autumn election. But despite the political posturing before last week’s vote, there was little doubt the package would get final approval.

Koch notes that with the election just months away, opposing the package would have been risky. ’Which politician is going to stand up and say, "I’m not going to give money for education and research,"’ he says. ’Everyone agrees education is important for the future.’

In the meantime, Steinbrück’s fellow SPD party members, while careful to voice support for education and science, are now demanding that Merkel explain how she intends to fund the package in a sinking economy while cutting taxes at the same time.