Dr. Wilhelm Krull: Paving the way for the exceptional – Opening up opportunities for high-calibre scientists

Whether there is a rich or sparse supply of raw materials, there is no doubting the importance of knowledge as a resource for a country’s future viability. For this reason, Germany is also giving top priority to creating optimal conditions for those who generate and publicise this knowledge.

Universities and universities of applied sciences, independent research institutions and industry all carry out research in Germany. Applied research is predominantly financed by commercial enterprises, while fundamental research receives a large part of its funding from the state as well as from foundations in selected fields. The diversified German research landscape offers many job opportunities for scientists. Over the past few years, many new positions, especially those geared towards the next generation of scientists, have been created by the huge expansion in third-party funding and the Excellence Initi­­ative. However, many world-class researchers still move abroad – and not only to the USA. For instance, a look at the European Research Council’s latest statistics reveals the UK as the most popular European destination for re­­search. Since 2008, over 400 successful applicants have undertaken their Advanced Grant research project at a British research institution, while only just under 250 opted for a German institution and around 150 chose the small neighbouring country of Switzerland. In their 2014 annual report, the German Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI) criticises the constant stream of top-class German researchers moving abroad. The reasons behind the moves to foreign research insti­­tutions include greater scientific independence particularly at an earlier stage, more reliable career prospects and better financial support. Funders of science in Ger­many are addressing this issue. They have been offering targeted funding programmes for a number of years with the aim of keeping German scientists in Germany and enticing those who have gone to return, and with the intention of attracting top foreign researchers and particularly talented young professionals to move to the re­­search location of Germany from abroad. Some examples of this are the Emmy Noether, Heisenberg and Reinhart Koselleck programmes led by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

At 2.5 billion euros, the DFG’s annual budget is roughly equal to the capital of the biggest science funding foun­­dation in Germany: the Volkswagen Foundation. In the light of this ratio, the question of what impact these foun­­dations can have in the area of funding science seems justified. However, it does not come down to the size of the funding volume; it is the course of action that makes the difference. Their independence and flexibility allows them to act quickly and effectively. By funding carefully selected individuals and projects, they can create “islands of success” and in turn can indirectly exert a significant influence on science policy and decision-makers in the in­­dividual institutions. This is shown, for example, in the fund­ing programmes offered by the Volkswagen Foundation for high-calibre scientists. As early as the 1990s, the foun­­dation supported German university research groups, which at the time had very strict hierarchical structures, and for the first time young scientists were able to gain scientific independence and management responsibilities at an early stage. Following on from this initial sup­­port, the foundation established the Lichtenberg Profes­sorships in 2002 which still exist to this day. Again for the first time, these professorships paved the way for a tenure track option for distinguished scientists at a uni­­versity of their choice. In 2013, another option was intro­duced which entailed developing the Lichtenberg Profes­­sorship into a professorship endowed with its own capital. Furthermore, “Freigeist-Fellowships” have been added to the foundation’s funding programmes. These non-subject-specific fellowships are directed at promising research talents who have completed their doctoral studies. These high-achieving researchers move between established fields of research and are intent on conducting creative and often risky scientific activities. As this kind of re­­search is carried out over a long period of time, the fel­­lowships are awarded for a duration of five years and in­­clude the option of a three-year extension. The foundation provides outstanding researchers with long-term support, but also reacts quickly to new research developments. For example, the foundation has been lending support to German postdoctoral researchers who want to conduct pioneering research activities with free electron lasers since 2011. Thanks to a three-year funding period offered by the foundation, young researchers are able to carry out experiments with currently the most powerful x-ray laser in Stanford and subsequently apply the skills acquired there to the free electron laser which is set to be completed by 2015 at the DESY research in­­stitute in Hamburg.

Today’s knowledge-based society needs transformative research. This in turn requires outstanding talent, sound institutional framework conditions and adequate institutional funding, funding for outstanding researchers with promising projects, short-term provision of funding for implementing original ideas, long-term funding for innovative projects and, last but not least, for all those involved to have more courage to take on riskier projects. Responsibility, trust and reliability are key factors that should shape the relationship between organisations that fund and conduct research and the young generation of scientists. High-calibre scientists should be able to courageously open up the boundaries of transformative research and find the path not only to new insights but also to a successful scientific career. This is how we will continue to pave the way for the exceptional.




Upon completing his studies in German, philosophy, education and political science, the author worked as a lecturer at the University of Oxford, the German Council of Science and Humanities and the administrative headquarters of the Max Planck Society. Dr. Krull has been the Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foun­dation since 1996. Besides his activities in scientific policy and research funding, he also holds positions on many different committees in Germany and abroad.