On the Mark

/ by Saira Jesani /

Germany's new global agenda for science collaboration.

Image by ©Peer Grimm/EPA/Corbis

In a move to achieve economic advantage over global competitors, in the past two years Chancellor Angela Merkel has brought science and research to the top of Germany’s economic agenda. The result is a new German internationalism in science that is focused on significantly increasing research collaborations around the world.

German policymakers are developing strategic international science initiatives to market the country as a hub of science and technology. Government-funded, international science programs are intended to lure foreign talent, halt the country’s current brain drain, and drive the scientific innovation that the recently revived German economy needs. And on the global issue of climate change, global collaborations are set to play a key role in German policy moves.

Facing a declining population, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research estimates that Germany needs an additional two million skilled workers by 2020 to maintain economic growth. New programs are bringing in thousands of scientists each year to work in Germany. “The point is to create a brain circulation,” says Gerold Heinrich, senior scientific officer at the Internationales Buero, a German organization that facilitates international science support programs. Last month, the Helmholtz Research association, a network of 15 prestigious German research centers, brought 13 young researchers from around the world to Germany. Each scientist was given the opportunity to form new teams, work at institutions of their choice, and a budget of at least €1.25 million to spend on research in their area of expertise over the next five years.

In the past, Germany has lost its own scientists to other countries such as the US, Japan, and New Zealand. “We do like to send German scientists abroad,” says Heinrich, “but we expect them to return after a few years, something that we are not seeing at the moment.” To prevent the brain drain, Merkel’s science policy calls for reworked salary structures, in hope of making Germany a more attractive venue for research. Amended visa requirements are also planned to lure non-native scientists to the country.

Knowing that Indian researchers make up a large part of Germany’s foreign research pool, and hoping to benefit further from an increased number of joint science programs, both countries strengthened their alliance last year. In October 2007, the German science delegation, led by Merkel, headed to India. During the four-day visit, the two countries agreed to set up a joint science and technology center in New Delhi with a focus on advanced materials, energy, and biomedical technologies. 2008 will also see the establishment of an Indian version of Germany’s famed Max Planck Institute, a move that will undoubtedly increase Indo-German science collaborations and contribute to their innovation-based economies.

According to a recent report by UK knowledge consultancy firm Evidence, Germany emerged as Europe’s leader in international research paper collaborations, beating both France and the UK. “Germany has one of the most impressive portfolios of international science support mechanisms and schemes,” says James Wilsdon, head of the science and innovation program at UK think tank Demos. “It is widely considered by both EU countries and recipient nations as a good model.” Egypt, New Zealand, and Vietnam have all benefited from recently established German science exchange programs and support schemes in various fields from the life sciences to environmental technologies.

Already a leader in environmental research, Germany plans to further develop technologies to reverse climate change by forming collaborations with countries whose research is advancing in the field. Germany recently pledged a massive $126 million to fund Chilean renewable energy initiatives. The focus is squarely on developing scientific breakthroughs for global problems which would contribute to the German economy’s upward trajectory.

Although Germany is facing fierce competition from developing economies like India and China, policymakers have voted in favor of collaboration. “They’re ahead of the game,” says Wilsdon. “The only way European countries can compete with the low cost of innovation in Asia is to make international collaboration more central to their way of working.”

Originally published February 22, 2008

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