Thomas May: Ensuring the competitiveness of science in Germany

Germany, as a country without raw materials, is dependent on a strong science landscape. However, the innovative strength of the German scientific community is not solely a question of money. What matters most in the international innovation competition is a close networking between science, business, politics and culture. Ensuring the competitiveness of science is a key task for the future which needs to be addressed both at national and state level.


Brilliant minds, ideas, products, contributions to de­­bates, exhibitions and expertise – science uses many channels to shape society, business and culture, and is itself stimulated in return. As a result of this close interconnection, ensuring the competitiveness of science in Germany is not some obscure demand voiced from an ivory tower, rather it is essential for ensuring the competitiveness of Germany as a science and business location. The value of science goes far beyond mere technological progress, which is often cited when it comes to describing the most important guarantor for securing the location. The value of science is far greater. It is the indispensable foundation of a modern society encompassing intelligentsia, curious, thoughtful and critical persons as well as a flourishing, multifaceted cultural landscape.

As easy as it is to document the importance of science, it is still difficult to mobilise public investments in line with this recognition in times of limited financial resources, particularly since the rewards and benefits from science can hardly be reaped during a short legislative period and the “return on investment” does not feature a simple causal relationship. Never­theless, state and federal governments have firmly prioritised and supported science in the past years so that the current state of science in Germany does not provide any reason for exaggerated worries. A look at the medium term, however, may provide cause for scepticism while at the same time issuing a warning not to rest on the status quo. The fixed-term “pacts” between federal and state governments – the Excellence Initiative, the Pact for Research and Innovation and the Higher Edu­cation Pact – are expiring one after the other. The situ­ation at German universities remains critical despite these “pacts”. Many universities are hardly able to satisfy their core tasks in proper fashion, let alone develop and implement innovative strategies in order to position themselves as being ready for the future and allowing them to strategically master the increased demands – such as the ever more heterogeneous student body, increased and more specialised qualification require­­ments brought on by business and society and the expanded and more intense international competi­tion. Science is all in all characterised by challenging developments: generating scientific insights is becoming increasingly complex and has to deal with an ever-growing number of preconditions. New technologies and elab­orate scientific infrastructures create a completely new access to knowledge. The globalisation driven by modern communication technologies enables an ever-­quicker ex­­change of ideas and insights. International competi­tion continues to intensify. Players, particularly in Asia, are investing an ever-increasing percentage of their gross domestic product in their scientific landscapes.

There are various options for dealing with existing and future challenges. And, to avoid any misunderstandings: the competitiveness of the German scientific community is not solely a question of money. Equally important prerequisites include suitable structural and legal conditions, institutions capable of developing strategies and acting upon them, as well as a balanced and complementary institutional structure. No matter which path is chosen, a number of basic principles should provide guidance to ensure the future viability and competitiveness of science in Germany:
1. Science is more than just research. The entire scientific performance spectrum must be supported so that, along with research, in particular teaching, trans­­fer (to politics, society, culture and business) and the entirety of the infrastructure-related scientific performances are supported and recognised. These different performance spectrums are closely related and interwoven.
2. The necessary scientific diversity should be supported in a correspondingly diverse manner on a structural and institutional level. This justifies and requires a multidimensional differentiation in the overall science system, combined with a profiling of individual institutions or organisations.
3. In this, universities play a constitutive role in the science system; they are the place where all scientific performance sectors and disciplines principally meet. Most of all, their teaching function serves as their biggest influence on society.
4. The structures facilitating the evolution of science are just as important as the targeted stimuli addressing its development. Science requires tailored, variable funding options, flexible conditions as well as creative financial leeway provided in the spirit of a “culture of enablement”. The scientific institutions and each and every scientist must be willing and able to actually take advantage of the opportunities provided.
5. Creating suitable financial and legal conditions for the scientific community is a key task for state and federal governments, which they must master with mutual responsibility in light of increasing demands and the growing pressure from international competition. This requires new ways of cooperation be­­­tween the federal and state authorities.

These guidelines provide a framework for orientation, which the German Council of Science and Humanities has used as the basis for its “perspective on the future of the German scientific system”1. At the heart of the Council‘s recommendations is a series of coordinated and bal­anced measures, which is to be implemented in a “future pact” between federal and state governments. The pact is to strengthen research, teaching, transfer and infrastruc­ture services equally and to include universities of applied sciences, universities and non-university sectors. It is a follow-up to the successes already achieved through the expiring individual “pacts”. It is characterised by a balance between competition, basic security as well as reliability and dynamics, and it targets a balanced and flexible promotion of persons and institutions. State and federal governments are called upon to implement the “future pact” together, while scientific institutions and individ­uals are required to fill the measures included in the pact and its basic principles with life – for the future of Germany as a science and business location.

From 1987 to 1995, Thomas May worked for the German Research Foundation. In 1995, he joined the head office of the German Council of Science and Humanities, where he headed the “Hochschulstruktur- und Rahmenplanung” department for five years. He then took over the “Lehre, Studium und Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs” department and was named deputy Secretary General. From 2003 to 2008, May was Chancellor of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Thomas May has been Secretary General of the German Council of Science and Humanities since 1st  February 2009.