German 'ivy league' plan passed

Ten universities to be offered the chance of cash boost to form a research elite

By | July 5, 2005

German universities last week began preparing for major restructuring of the research system after Education and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn finally succeeded in gaining the political approval needed to launch an ambitions new program to spur scientific research and create a German "Ivy League."

The scheme, which will cost €1.9 billion over 5 years, needed the unanimous approval of Germany's 16 states, but Bulmahn has had a tough time achieving that support since it was first proposed last year.

In April, all states except Hesse had approved the plan. After some minor adjustments to the plan, Hesse Prime Minister Roland Koch gave his approval on June 23.

Florian Frank, spokesman for Bulmahn, advised the scientific world to take notice of the new program. "This will have an impact at the international level," he said. "Germany has a lot of good universities, but none that are really known internationally. We have no Harvards, no Oxfords. But with this new program, we hope some of our universities will become international leaders."

Peter Gaehtgens, president of the German Rectors' Conference, called the agreement "an important signal for Germany's universities," adding that cooperation between the federal and state governments provides hope for the future. "Now it's important to implement the program quickly and resolutely," he said in a statement.

Eva-Maria Streier, spokeswoman for the German Research Foundation (DFG), which will administer the plan, told The Scientist that money will be flowing for the 2006-07 academic year. "This is a big thing for Germany," she said. "It will restructure the whole research and university system. We are very happy to finally have this plan approved."

Bulmahn first publicly proposed an elite university plan in January 2004, sparking a firestorm of criticism from those who support the current egalitarian system of almost entirely public universities operated by state governments. Since then, the plan has gone through several adjustments in order to gain the political support of all 16 states, several of which are governed by Chancellor Schroeder's main opposition party.

At the meeting, two related plans were approved. The first, the elite university plan, now called the "Excellence Initiative," will provide on average an additional €21 million per year to as many as 10 universities selected in various fields to participate in the 5-year program. The federal government will cover 75% of the cost with the states contributing the remainder.

The excellence program also will provide funding for creation of graduate schools, which are currently not common in Germany, and for so-called excellence clusters, which would foster scientific cooperation between universities and research institutes. Each of the up to 40 graduate schools would receive on average €1 million per year, and each of up to 30 excellence clusters on average €6.5 million.

Research Ministry spokesman Frank said each university chosen for the elite program will receive funding for at least one graduate school and one excellence cluster. He explained that in such a case, an elite university would receive €6.5 million annually for the cluster, €1 million for the graduate school, and €13.5 million as part of the elite plan.

Also approved was the so-called "Pact for Research and Innovation," which will increase funding to major research organizations by at least 3% per year from 2006 to 2010. In the first year of the program, 3% would translate to an additional €150 million.

The DFG's Streier said that because of the tight timeframe and rigorous selection process, only about half of the elite universities, graduate schools, and clusters will be chosen for funding in the 2006-07 academic year. The remaining will be chosen by the 2007-08 year. "We want to move quickly, but we have to do it by DFG standards and DFG standards are high," she said.

Streier said she expected nearly all German universities to apply for the elite program. Interested universities must submit letters of intention by August 1, stating which fields they are interested in and the names of involved scientists. Universities must submit more detailed applications by the end of September.

Those applications will be peer reviewed by a panel of German and international scientists, and universities whose plans are deemed worthy will be asked to submit a detailed application. The final selection will be made by a joint commission of representatives from the DGF, the Wissenschaftsrat (German Science Council), and federal and state research and education ministries.

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