When Stefanie Dimmeler became professor of molecular cardiology in Frankfurt last year, researchers hailed her as one of Germany's youngest tenured scientists. Obtaining a tenured professorship at age 33 may not seem like something out of the ordinary to some US researchers, but Dimmeler beat most of her German colleagues by 10 years.
To help make that country more attractive to bright scientists like Dimmeler, Federal Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn introduced a law in January 2002 that radically changed the academic workplace. The law creates junior professorships, similar to the American system of assistant or associate professors, and it also makes it possible to obtain a professorship after a career in industry.
For the last century, German scientists have routinely remained in postdoctoral purgatory for more than a decade, in a system much criticized as patriarchal. Postdoctoral scientists are assigned to a professor, and they must then acquire yet another formal qualification, the Habilitation, which involves a post-PhD research thesis. Candidates are usually in their early 40s by the time they finally receive their first professorial appointment.
"In the US, scientists take on responsibility at a much younger age," notes Dimmeler. "When you've been a postdoc for two years, you may be offered the position of assistant professor. That is why so many scientists do not return to Germany, because they say this is much more attractive, [in the United States] we have the chance to do our own research."
YOUTH AS CHAMPIONS Under the new law, the Habilitation as a prerequisite for professorship is to be phased out by 2010. The reform enables scientists in their early 30s to do independent scientific work and raise their own research budgets. The government has sponsored the introduction of the first 3,000 junior professorships with ¤180 million, and officials hope to attract these 3,000 scientists within the next four years.
Now a year into the new program, German academics are stepping back to evaluate its success. "We have to make it possible for young scientists to distinguish themselves academically in their early 30s, with all the rights and duties of an academic teacher, so that they can decide in their mid-30s whether to continue the academic career or whether to look for a career change," says Juergen Mlynek, president of Humboldt University, Berlin. "Also, I have always been skeptical about the Habilitation."
Programs like the one at Humboldt face tough opposition, however. The federal states of Thuringia, Bavaria, and Saxony even filed a complaint of unconstitutionality at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe. The new (federal) law intrudes "inadmissibly" on the right of the federal states to legislate in the area of education, says Bavaria's research minister Hans Zehetmair. Thuringia, Bavaria, and Saxony are also bemoaning the abolition of the Habilitation.
LOST GENERATION Debate about the reforms center around the rigid timetable imposed under the new law. University researchers can now spend a maximum of 12 years on fixed-term contracts to qualify for full professorship with tenure. This includes six years as PhD student and postdoctoral fellow (time spent abroad is excluded) and six years as junior professor. These junior academics will also be required to teach for four to eight hours per week.
Junior professors can also set up their own research groups, they will have their own budget of ¤77,000, and they can apply for additional funds from industry or research funding bodies. The "professors in training" are initially appointed for three years, after which they will be evaluated by their publications and teaching performance. If they pass, they will be appointed for another three years, and they can use this experience to support applications for tenured professorships.
Critics question what happens to those who fail to find a permanent position within 12 years. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research urges scientists not to worry: They can still be employed in academia under Germany's Part-time and Limited-term Employment Act. During the 12 qualification years, they will be employed under the Higher Education Framework Act, which means that a fixed-term contract can be renewed if this is justified on objective grounds--for example, if they are collaborators in a specified research project that will be completed within a definite period of time. In other words, scientists in academia will have to learn to "sink or swim," just as their colleagues do in industry. But many university presidents make it clear that they won't renew fixed-term contracts after 12 years, to avoid legal disputes over whether these positions are, in reality, permanent ones.
"It is impossible for [universities] to meet the demand ... that a research project is clearly defined," says Hartmut Beister, speaker of the academic lecturers and assistants at Bavarian Universities. "Research projects have the inbuilt characteristic that they give birth to new questions and new projects. The regulations for fixed-term work hardly suit the science scene."
As a result, the atmosphere is gloomy among more experienced scientists who have failed to secure permanent positions--many fear they will be banned from universities when their current fixed-term contracts expire. "I don't see any advantage in the new system--except maybe for younger scientists who are now on the fast lane to overtake those who are over 35," says Albert Jeltsch, a habilitated biochemist and lecturer at the University of Giessen. He adds that the introduction of the junior professorship makes it even harder for habilitated scientists to find jobs as university lecturers, because institutions tend to convert teaching positions once available to his generation into posts for junior professors. "I may have to move abroad," concludes Jeltsch. "The same will hold true for many of my colleagues. What else can we do?"
GAINING EXPERIENCE Dimmeler, who favors a more competitive professorial system, follows these discussions with astonishment: "It seems to me that people in Germany find it hard to try something new," she says. "One should not throw out the baby with the bath water before one has even gained some experience." The first generation of junior professors has been in office for only a year.
They are challenged to define their new positions. Katrin Schäfer, junior professor for atherosclerosis research, who started her job at the University of Goettingen this past May, experienced a great deal of confusion as to her formal title. She also had to figure out whether she ranked equally with full professors, but eventually she won the same voting rights in faculty meetings. "There are no role models," she says, "but things will be easier for the next generation of junior professors."
Birgit Liss welcomes the challenges that come with her new academic post. As Dorothy Hodgkin Research fellow at Oxford University, she always had considered returning to Germany one day. But she did not want to compromise her research independence. "I heard a lot of different opinions about the new system; however, it sounded not too bad to me, and I was offered a junior professorship with very good conditions," Liss relates. She decided to give it a go and will start her new job as junior professor for molecular neurobiology at the University of Marburg at the beginning of next year. "Things are not always 100% smoothly organized," Liss says, "but I see this as an interesting challenge and chance, as you are involved in a creative process."
Martina Habeck (email@example.com) is a freelance writer in London.