Reposted with permission from Science News, 22 April 2005

BERLIN--A bitter dispute over who has responsibility for German universities is blocking a federal government plan to spend nearly €2 billion on cutting-edge research.

On 14 April, the latest attempt at compromise ended in disappointment for scientists and university administrators who have been anxiously awaiting the start of a so-called Excellence Initiative designed to boost the fortunes of Germany's most competitive universities, which have suffered decades of tight budgets, aging faculty, and expanding student populations.

The stakes are high. The proposed initiative would make €1.9 billion ($2.5 billion) available through 2011 under three programs: up to€1 million per year for 40 new graduate schools, € 6.5 million yearly for each of 30 "excellence clusters" that would increase cooperation between universities and other research centers, and€ 21 million a year for 10 universities that develop university-wide strategies to boost themselves to world-class status. The federal government would cover 75% of the program, with state governments covering the rest. An accompanying "pact for research and innovation" would guarantee 3% increases for Germany's nonuniversity research institutes, including the Max Planck Society, through 2010.


Still waiting. The University of Heidelberg is a leading candidate for funding under a stalled program that would support Germany's top universities.

CREDIT: UNIVERSITÄT HEIDELBERG

The targeted university funding is a dramatic change in Germany, where decades of egalitarian policies have sought to ensure equal access to universities nationwide and "elitism" has been taboo. In January 2004, however, Research and Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn, a member of the governing Social Democrats, announced that she wanted to fund a program to create a handful of world-class universities that would attract students and researchers from around the globe ( Science , 11 June 2004, p.1579).

The German constitution assigns responsibility for universities to the 16 German Länder, or states, and several state leaders--chiefly from the opposition Christian Democratic party--protested, saying the plan overstepped the federal government's powers. Months of negotiations produced the three-pronged funding plan, and state and federal leaders have been near agreement at least twice. Most recently, on 6 April, the science ministers from all 16 states agreed to a final proposal, and it looked as though the plan would go forward. A week later, however, on 14 April, Christian Democrat leaders balked and refused to sign off. In particular, the leader of Hessen, Roland Koch, has said the plan would create an unacceptable "two-tier system" among Germany's 99 universities.

The continuing blockade is "completely incomprehensible," says Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the DFG research funding organization. "A few politicians are ...tarnishing the international reputation of German research." Bulmahn said in a press conference a day after the latest breakdown that she is ready for further negotiations and "will continue the fight." However, most observers predict that the stalemate will continue at least until after state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on 22 May--where the Christian Democrats are hoping for a big win that would boost their bargaining power in state-federal disputes.