Dr. Wilhelm Krull: Funding innovative thinking

The Volkswagen Foundation is one of the largest private research funders in Germany. In the 50 years since its estab­­lishment, the Foundation has granted almost 4 billion euros for about 30,000 research projects and in doing so has firmly established itself as a fixture in the national and international funding environment. As one of the largest foun­­dations in Germany and one of the most powerful private research funders in Europe, the organisation sees its task as being a reliable and yet inspiring partner to the scientific community.

 The Foundation was set up by the Federal Republic of Germany and the state of Niedersachsen as an incorpor­­­ated foundation under civil law in 1961, with the Foundation then launching its activities in the following year. The Volks­­wagen Foundation is not a company foundation, as is often assumed due to its name. In fact, the formation, name and purpose of the Foundation originate from the extraordinary conditions in Germany following the Second World War. In a state treaty between the state of Niedersachsen and the Federal Repub­­lic of Germany signed in November 1959, the dispute over the ownership of what was then known as the Volkswagenwerk following 1945 was resolved: The decision was made to set up a foundation with the statutory purpose of advancing science and technology in research and education”.

The state treaty also saw what was formerly Volkswagenwerk GmbH transformed into a public company. 60 per cent of the share capital was transferred to private ownership through the issuing of so-called people’s shares, while the Federal Government and the state of Niedersachsen retained shares of 20 per cent each. The proceeds from the privatisation and portion of the profits that remained payable to the State of Niedersachsen and the Federal Govern­­­ment were siphoned into the assets of the newly founded “Stiftung Volks­wagen­­werk”, as it was known until 1989. The move was driven by the idea of establishing an independent and strong insti­­tution for funding science and technology in the young Federal Republic of Ger­­many. Using these funds, the Volks­­wagen Foundation makes a substantial contri­­bution to funding basic research. Its funds are open to all areas of science: from humanities and social sciences, engi­­­­neering, natural and biological sciences to medicine. The Foundation is free to fund what it sees as relevant and suitable. However, this is always done within the conditions of its statutes: as a result, it only provides funding to scientific institutions for purpose-related projects and has to ensure that the funds only provide additional support and do not substitute the budget of the recipient institution.

 The range of funding is not exclusively oriented towards the stated requirements of the scientific community. Instead, the funding concept also reflects the obligation to appropriately consider entitled interests and expectations which are staked on the scientific community from the outside. The Foundation therefore devotes attention to any areas which business, politics and society justifiably expect support on from the scientific community. A central concern is providing new funding options in innovative fields of science and developing new funding tools.

Dr. Jörg Neumann vom Laser-Zentrum Hannover arbeitet an  einem experimentellen Aufbau zur optischen Charakterisierung  laseraktiver Polymerwellenleiter.

Dr. Jörg Neumann vom Laser-Zentrum Hannover arbeitet an einem experimentellen Aufbau zur optischen Charakterisierung
laseraktiver Polymerwellenleiter.

 The Volkswagen Foundation’s funding portfolio is made up of around 15 funding initiatives. The initiatives are grouped according to the primary intention: they are either structure and person-related, primarily foreign-oriented, topic-specific or have an international focus. This allows the Foundation to fund projects and education in Sub-Saharan Africa, support universities in developing new curricula and finance research into key cultural and social issues. In addition to its international and national work, the Foundation is particularly active in its home state of Niedersachsen as a funder of science. Since the Volkswagen Foun­dation was founded, the term “Nieder­­sächsisches Vorab” has been synonymous with research funding in the state of Niedersachsen. This term covers the funds from the Foundation which are exclusively earmarked for the univer­­sities and research organisations in Niedersachsen. The state and the largest private research funding organisation in Germany, the Volkswagen Foundation, have been working hand-in-hand on this for the benefit of science for the last 50 years. In this time, more than one billion euros have been granted out of the “Vorab”.

 The “Vorab” funds have substantially extended the financial scope of research funding in the state and contributed to its success in national and international competition. Thanks to “Vorab” funding over the past few years, numerous insti­­tutions have been founded while a range of larger research networks have been established focusing on topics such as food or energy. The outstanding qualities of Niedersachsen as a research region are clearly underlined by its great results in the first two rounds of the Excellence Ini­tiative, whose state portion is also financed out of the “Niedersächsisches Vorab”:

 two internationally-oriented grad­­­uate schools, three excellence clusters and the future concept of the University of Göttingen were recognised as part of the nationwide competition. In the third round of the Excellence Initiative, which is currently underway, two graduate schools and an excellence cluster in Niedersachsen can also submit a full application.

Uwe Schneider widmet sich der Synthese.

Uwe Schneider widmet sich der Synthese.

Melanie Gauch vom Deutschen Institut für Kautschuktechnologie Hannover  ist gerade dabei, benötigte Polymerschichten herzustellen.

Melanie Gauch vom Deutschen Institut für Kautschuktechnologie Hannover
ist gerade dabei, benötigte Polymerschichten herzustellen.

 The “Niedersächsisches Vorab” is made unique by the close cooperation between the state and the Foundation. In fact, the partners were nationwide pioneers for a cooperation model of this type for scien­­tific funding: for the first time, a private foundation worked together with politicians to pool their competencies with the aim of supporting research and education in a sustainable, flexible and future-oriented way. Forward-looking funding also means always checking the internal processes and funding practice of the Foundation itself with a view to identifying whether and to what extent they are keeping pace with the changes in the world of academia: what can the Foundation offer to help master the latest challenges – such as increased internationalisation, stiffening competi­­tion for top academics and the fundamen­­tal structural changes at universities?

 The joint considerations in the context of these questions led to a strategic realign­­ment of the funding activities in the “Vorab” in 2006, with the focus being set on six sustainable pillars: funding is avail­­able in the fields “Research net­­works and research focuses”, “Gaining and retaining”, “New and developing fields of research”, “Excellence initiatives”, “Third-party funding” and “Research co­­op­­era­­tion between Niedersachsen and Israel”. These six structural categories offer scope for research projects which allow intelligent minds to explore new ideas and unusual concepts, support new concepts for the changing structures at universities and encourage them to focus on new scientific core areas. Finally, tried and tested avenues of funding are also preserved, such as the scientific cooperation between Niedersachsen and Israel, which has run for over thirty years. The funding in all areas is always based on a scientific approach: over and above short-term political or financial interests, the funding in the “Vorab” is focused on the criteria of scientific quality and originality.

 The “Niedersächsisches Vorab” has been providing the scope for the development of new research areas and backing for local science for almost five decades. Particularly given its new structure, the scheme is aiming to continue strengthening Niedersachsen as a centre of science – and therefore as a centre of business – in future.

krull_2010_9303_04-KopieAfter completing his studies, the author worked as a lector at Oxford University, the German Council of Science and Human­­ities and in the General Administration of the Max Planck Society. Dr. Krull has been secretary general of the Volkswagen Foun­­dation since 1996. In addi­­­tion to his work on science policy and re­­search funding, he also holds numerous functions in various bodies both in Germany and abroad.