According to DFG President Prof. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, up to 2000 prospective DFG-funded junior scientists could suffer major setbacks as the result of the proposed budget freeze for Germany's main science funding organisations, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft ( DFG; a sponsor of Next Wave Germany) and the Max Planck Society ( MPG). At the same time, MPG President Prof. Peter Gruss questions the long-term prospects of up to 20 Max Planck Institute departments and innovative programmes such as the International Max Planck Research Schools (follow this link to a recent Next Wave article about one such school). German scientists have addressed an open letter to policy-makers, urging them not to freeze the budgets.
A number of problems have undermined Germany's efforts to balance the federal budget by 2006. An expected ? 18 billion decline in tax revenues this year, combined with a struggling economy and more than 4 million unemployed citizens, were the main contributors to both federal and state budget crises this autumn, and there is little hope of improvement in 2003. Nonetheless, the red-green government's recent coalition agreement to further improve the conditions for science and research in Germany, regardless of the current economic situation, meant that it came as a shock when DFG and MPG learned in late November that the country's financial woes are finally having an impact on their budgets as well.
On 20 November, federal research minister Edelgard Bulmahn informed the presidents and chairs of Germany's science organisations that her ministry ( BMBF) would not be able to meet proposed budget increases for DFG, MPG, the Leibniz Association ( WGL), and the science academies, but would instead freeze the 2003 budgets at this year's level. The announcement came after 4 years of consistent investment in research and science by the German federal government: Since Bulmahn became science minister in 1998, the DFG and MPG budgets have grown by 17.6% and 14.6%, respectively.
The announcement brought an immediate reaction from the affected organisations, scientists, and the state (Länder) governments. Gruss and Winnacker have both appealed to BMBF to adhere to the agreements reached in June. Both organisations receive about half their funding from federal sources, with the remainder coming from the Länder. And under the preliminary budgets negotiated in the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion ( BLK), DFG was set to receive a 3.5% budget increase in 2003, with MPG in line to get 3%.
Winnacker has pronounced the freeze a "drastic and totally unpredictable change" in the federal government's science policy and has reminded politicians that when the BLK consensus was reached in June, it took into account the generally difficult financial situation. Although the majority of Länder governments reject the idea of freezing science funding, a meeting of the BLK's commission on science promotion last Friday failed to reach an agreement between the federal government and the Länder. The issue has been put on the agenda for a 19 December meeting between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the minister presidents of the 16 Länder.
If the announced budget freeze took effect, financial losses would be severe. Gruss says MPG would suffer a loss of ? 28 million, and Winnacker claims that DFG would be obliged to write off ? 43 million already accounted for in the current 2003 budget, which would need to undergo revision. Quite apart from the domestic consequences, Winnacker has warned policy-makers that Germany is running against the current international trend toward increased funding for science and research institutes--a trend that holds despite the fact that those countries are also suffering from less-than-robust economies.
The DFG president estimates that the new situation could impact up to 2000 junior scientists either because their PhD studies would not be funded or because entire projects would be denied funding. Within 10 days of Bulmahn's announcement, the freeze was already reflected in DFG's approvals for 13 special research groups (Sonderforschungsbereiche). In addition to an unusually high rejection rate, all approved research groups--whose projects are set to commence on 1 January 2003--had to accept the looming scenario of flat funds for next year, and the potential cancellation of subprojects, should current conditions prevail.
MPG's senate, meanwhile, was unable to approve the budget for next year during its December session because it was based on the 3.0% increase. Budget problems would most likely put programmes aimed at promoting junior scientists in jeopardy. Gruss said the MPG would have to discuss programmes such as the International Max Planck Research Schools. Further cuts seem inevitable: "Short-term measures to consolidate the 2003 budget will be insufficient. Expected cuts and the lack of financial planning security will require structural changes," including the closure of up to 20 Max Planck Institute departments, Gruss added in a statement during the recent annual press conference.
Unsurprisingly these prospects have led to an outcry among scientists in Germany and abroad. In a grassroots effort, a group comprised mainly of current DFG fellows drafted an open letter to BLK, Schröder, and Bulmahn (see box above). By last Friday's BLK commission meeting, more than 1500 scientists, including German Nobel laureates Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Prof. Klaus von Klitzing, had signed the letter, putting politicians, federal, and state representatives under pressure. The authors stress that science funding should not be seen as a subsidising activity, but rather as an investment in Germany's future. The letter calls the freeze the "wrong signal" to send, foreseeing a negative impact on Germany's reputation as a place to do science and research.
Whether the open letter played a role in postponing a decision at last Friday's commission meeting and the resulting renegotiation on 19 December remains unclear: BLK declined comment to Next Wave, and BMBF's press office did not know of the letter's existence before Next Wave's publication deadline.