Prof. Dr. Heinz Riesenhuber: Promoting innovation in the social market economy free of ideology

Here in Germany, technological innovations ensure growth, jobs, prosperity and social peace. At the same time, they also help master the major challenges of the 21st century: climate change, energy shortage, demographic change, security of food supply in the world and peacekeeping.


Intelligent security systems, the latest technology for digital cameras, solar energy and wind energy plants – high tech made in Germany is conquering the world. We are the world’s export vice-champion of research-intensive goods. To retain this title, we must be one step ahead of our international competitors in future, be increasingly quicker and better and score points with constantly new high-tech products, processes and services and the outstanding skilled employees who develop them.

The competition is tough, especially from our classical technology competitors, the USA and Japan. But the booming emerging economies such as China are continuing to catch up with us.

Our prerequisites for success are good. We have an ex­­cellent research climate, a strong medium-sized econ­omy, an infrastructure which is the envy of the world, efficient and broadly based research and development promotion programmes and a very good education and training system.

But there are also challenges which we must address with our comprehensive high-tech and innovation strategy. We need to make the underlying legal and tax-related conditions innovation-friendlier, counter the lack of skilled employees, accelerate the implementation of research results in the markets, make Germany into a high-tech start-up country and use new technologies such as the internet, nanotechnology, energy technologies, biotechnology in a mission-oriented manner for important social aims so that “CO2-free cities”, “intelligent factories”, an independent and healthy life well into old age become reality in just a few years.

Promotion of innovation in this direction has its price. For example, Germany’s majority conservative government of 2006-2013 spent over 13 billion euros more on research and development and there will be another three billion euros by 2015. Expenditure on research in Germany has increased to about three per cent of GDP – currently about 80 billion euros – of which the private sector pays about two thirds.

However, to continue to be successful in the future it will not only be a matter of money. We must also free ourselves from those ideological ideas which used to in­­fluence the subsidisation of innovation, which still do today and which fuel fears of technology in Germany.

Example: the energy switch and the nuclear energy phase-out: One of the major advantages of nuclear power is the concentrated supply of CO2-free energy, which can largely be used safely with ultra-modern security technology, as the last few decades have shown. In major accidents such as at Chernobyl in 1986 and in Fuku­shima in 2011, the consequences are hardly controllable and threaten humans and the environment over large areas. Moreover, the removal problem remains unsolved. So all political parties in Germany realised relatively early that nuclear power could only ever be a form of transitional technology. The only bone of contention was: for how long?

While the first decision to phase out the use of nuclear power in Germany in 2000 and the beginning of promoting renewable energies was still ideologically based, we have, for the first time after Fukushima, presented a coherent and scientifically based plan for an energy ­switch for one of the biggest industrial countries in the world. However, here, too, we are faced to some extent with purely ideologically based barriers to implementation. This starts with the battle-cry “Not in my backyard”, over the necessary expansion of the electricity highway from Germany’s North Sea to the industrial regions in the south and is nowhere near stopping with the resistance against the equally necessary ending of the over-subsidisation of expensive solar energy and the protest against the essential exceptions to the EEC renewable energy surcharge for our export industry.

The energy-switch is a mammoth task for entire generations. It demands much from us all: costs and giving up vested interests. But it also offers great opportunities for an independent, environmentally friendly and affordable energy supply and for export opportunities for our companies which now lead the world markets in energy and environmental technology. If we can suc­cessfully use this great potential, we must remain ob­jective. The current reform of the German Renewable Energy Sources is an important step, which must be followed by more.

Example: fracking: To achieve a successful energy ­switch, we will – at least for a transitional period – also need new energy technologies which will open up new energy reserves. Once such technology might be fracking, in which natural gas reserves buried in deep layers of the earth are developed, as the USA has been successfully doing for several years. Of course, all risks must be reduced as far as possible so that humans and the environment suffer no harm. Here, too, only a scientifically and objectively-based procedure, which tests all opportunities and risks, will get us any further – but not an almost bitter and ideologically-coloured counter-­attack against fracking which hardly takes account of factual arguments.

Example: green genetic technology: Green genetic technology can help in a relatively short time to breed plants which supply tailor-made answers for all possible purposes. These include plants that can be cultivated in dry regions to help combat hunger in the world; industrial crops which will help make the production of chemicals environmentally friendlier, including bio-degradable packaging; energy plants for the bio-fuels sector, which are also opening up alternative sources of income for agriculture in Germany of all countries and which, in this case, do not – as in some other countries, unfortunately – compete with food production or lead to the destruction of near-natural areas or forests.

The example of green genetic engineering especially shows that it depends particularly on the right basic conditions for the use of new technologies because these often decide whether these technologies cause damage or are useful. Here, too, only a non-ideological and objective-scientifical approach can bring about the right decision. The German Genetic Engineering Act, which we approved in 1990 after a tough battle, its sub­se­quent amendments and our new national research and political strategy “BioÖkonomie” (BioEconomy) 2030 are a good basis for one day enabling us to – hopefully – make use of the potential of impartially green genetic engineering with all due care where it can be of use to us all.

Example: a national regulatory framework: Unfortu­nately, it is not always possible to call the national re­gulatory framework non-ideological. It has unfortunately one feature that all governments have appropriated since time immortal: the – sometimes excessive – wish for control. As a result, our innovative companies and tech­­nology start-ups in particular suffer from reform backlogs and bureaucratic straitjackets under a tax  regime that does not favour investment in innovation as it does in other countries. They also suffer from an education system that, in schools in particular, permits many – some­times ideologically based – experiments and trains too few scientific technical and commercially minded new blood – especially female ones. Over the last few years, we have been able to reduce the costs of bureaucracy by one quarter, i.e. by about 12 billion euros a year. But new costs in other quarters, a weak venture capital market compared to other countries, the lack of tax con­ces­sions for research and the arduous road to achieving uniform educational standards in Germany’s individual states show how far the road to really innovation-­friendly underlying conditions still is.

But in order to win the future, this is a road that we must go down. At the same time, we must remain flexible and open for new ideas and new networks which involve people more. We must take their needs and concerns very seriously, take an unblinkered, sober and non-ideological look at new technologies, carefully weigh up their opportunities and risks and openly discuss ethical limits, as we have successfully done since the 1970s with the scientific assessment of the consequences of technology, and then courageously and resolutely make the right decisions for efficiently subsidising innovation.

The author, born in Frankfurt am Main in 1935, is the Father of the House of the German Bundestag and was German Minister of Research in the cabinet of Helmut Kohl from 1982 to 1993. Heinz Riesenhuber has a doctorate in chemistry and is an honorary professor at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.

Only in this way can we unleash the innovative forces in Germany and initiate developments which, in spite of demographic change – as forecast by the latest Prognos Report – will lead us to the “Golden Twenties” and make our social market economy a model of success for the people in Germany and the whole world.