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A Journalist Discusses the Results of the "Competition for Excellence" among Universities (October 19, 2006)

A journalist reports on the mainly positive response to the federal government’s “Competition for Excellence.” The goal of the competition is to improve the performance of German universities by offering support to innovative courses of study, promising research groups, and leading research institutes.

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Competition for Excellence
The New Research Landscape

Protein scientists from Munich, stem cell experts from Dresden, and integration researchers from Konstanz all have one thing in common right now: untroubled by the power struggles between politics and science, they are overjoyed because they just won the final round of the “competition for excellence.” But given the sums that other countries are currently pumping into science, the competition is a drop in the bucket.

Federal and state governments are making roughly 380 million Euro available annually for the award-winning graduate schools, [research] clusters, and future initiatives. But stem cell scientists alone will receive almost the same amount in the coming years in California, whose population is only half as large as Germany’s. Stanford University wants to increase its budget by approximately 3.4 billion Euro through donations. Half that sum could be mobilized in no time.

The Oft-Lamented Barrier has Fallen in Many Places

Comparative figures can also be interpreted positively: with relatively little means, the science minister and reviewers from both the German Research Foundation [Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG] and the German Council of Science and Humanities [Wissenschaftsrat] have had a tremendous impact on the revitalization of the research landscape. By the end of the first round, the competition had already served to noticeably hasten the universities’ crucial quest to develop their strengths and identities. No one talks about uniform, nationwide quality anymore. This delusion appears to have been disposed of once and for all.

The most important change may be that the oft-lamented barrier between university and non-university research has fallen in many places. Collaborative projects between universities and non-university institutes received especially high marks from international reviewers. Karlsruhe, the overall winner, was the most radical, merging the Helmholtz Energy Research Center and the Technical University to form the KIT, modeled after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

2007: Even More Applicants for Even More Funds

The Kiel Excellence Cluster [Exzellenzcluster] for “The Ocean of the Future” inspired collaboration beyond the obstructive institutional boundaries between the Christian Albrechts University and two local Leibniz Institutes, the Institute for Marine Sciences and the Institute for World Economy. If these models catch on, the everyday routine of university-based academics will soon change for the better. If numerous regional or subject-specific collaborations come into being, they will open the doors of the ivory tower much wider than has previously been the case. Through the executive boards of these collaborative efforts, the universities – chronically strapped for cash – would assume an unprecedented influence on the money flow of all state research funds.

According to education and research minister Annette Schavan, who was in unison with DFG president Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the competition will be much harsher in the second round than in the first. In 2007, 1.1 billion Euro will be available, and the number of applicants will be greater because everyone who lost this year can reapply next year along with new applicants. After cuts to higher education budgets in states from Berlin to Bavaria, the universities have proven to be doubly motivated to receive some of the prize money.

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