The Max Planck Society ( MPG), Germany's largest basic research organisation, announced last week that it will close one of its institutes and 12 institute departments over the next 4 years. Fifteen junior research groups composed of young scientists will also be terminated after their initial 5-year term. The MPG's senate decided on further consolidation measures during its annual assembly in Hamburg in order to reduce annual operation costs by up to ?50 million. The MPG warned last December that budget restrictions would force it to close several institutes or departments.

With its 80 institutes and more than 12,000 employees, the Max Planck Society needs an annual budget increase of 4% in order to maintain its competitiveness in research on an international level, explained MPG president Professor Peter Gruss at the assembly. But because the federal government will not increase its share of the MPG budget this year, the MPG faces a shortfall of at least ?28 million in 2003. Because the preceding budget is always used as the basis for calculating the subsequent one, the total budget deficit could grow to about ?168 million over the next 5 years.

Further financial strain results from the MPG's heavy contribution to the development of the research community in the former East Germany, Gruss pointed out. The society had received 5% annual increases from the federal government to assist with this. However, this funding was stopped in 1999. But as Gruss explained, with three institutes opening in 2003, the MPG's activities in eastern Germany are far from complete. Furthermore, professors' and institute directors' salaries have increased by between 30% to 50% in recent years, so that with its current budget, the MPG is only able to fill three out of four positions which fall vacant.

Finally, the costs of the newly established International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS) are not totally covered by the current budget. Gruss highlighted the importance of the 29 research schools, which are training more than 400 PhD students, but added that under current restrictions further expansion of the schools will be impossible.

All this bad news meant tough decisions for the MPG senate about where the axe will fall. Twelve institute departments, in Munich, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, Cologne, Göttingen, Mülheim/Ruhr, Nijmegen (the Netherlands), and Bonn, will close upon retirement of the current department chairs. Additionally, 15 junior research groups will be discontinued, although Gruss did not disclose which. Overall, up to 180 scientists will be affected by the proposed measures. Gruss said that the MPG will try to avoid lay-offs and will offer employees jobs in other departments or institutes.

The Hannover-based Max Planck Institute for Experimental Endocrinology will be closed completely. "This institute consists of one department only at the moment. As budget restrictions will not allow further expansion as planned, we decided to close it," Gruss explained. The existing department will be relocated to another Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, about 100 kilometers away. Lower Saxony's science minister, Lutz Stratmann, expressed disappointment at the closure, but was relieved that the move keeps the department within the state.

Meanwhile Gruss urged politicians to make sure that the MPG, and German science in general, receives sufficient funding to be able to compete with other international research centres. Should policy-makers--beyond all expectations--decide to increase the MPG's budget again, Gruss pointed out that there is the potential to reverse most of the senate's decisions: "The modular strategy leaves room to adjust the consolidation programme, should changes occur."