Doing the math in Berlin

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by Kai Kupferschmidt, Gretchen Vogel, from Science 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 791-792; doi: 10.1126/science.344.6186.791
johanna_wanka
When Johanna Wanka was a mathematician in communist East Germany, any foray into politics carried huge risks. In the mid-1980s, she and her husband Gert, also a mathematician, turned the weeklong political indoctrination held every fall at their university in the small town of Merseburg into an open discussion session. It earned them a disciplinary action, effectively freezing their careers. When a close friend was arrested in 1982, Wanka realized that if she and her husband were ever put in prison, their two young children could be sent to an institution. “That was our biggest fear,” Wanka told Science recently in a wide-ranging interview.
Today, Wanka is at the heart of science politics as federal research minister of the reunited Germany. Later this year, she will literally move close to the pinnacle of German power, when she and her staff relocate from the current ministry building—which served as West Germany’s embassy in East Berlin—to a gleaming new one within view of the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist who also grew up in the former East.
Politics isn’t nearly as terrifying as it was 30 years ago, but after 15 months in office, Wanka, now 63, faces major challenges. Discussions on how to spend €9 billion in promised funding for research and education over the next 4 years are dragging on because of deep disagreements between the federal and Länder (state) governments over who decides how the money is used. In the balance hangs the fate of several landmark programs started by Wanka’s predecessor, Annette Schavan.
German science leaders want action. In a rare joint statement on 19 May, the heads of the German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Rectors’ Conference, and the German Council of Science and Humanities called on politicians to “surmount the paralyzing blockade and to finally act.” They asked for a “substantial part” of the €9 billion to go to the country’s budget-squeezed universities and to research institutions, and pleaded for a change in the constitution that would allow the federal government to help with long-term financing of universities. Failure to act would set back the research system for years to come, they warned.
Wanka previously served as minister of science and culture in the states of Brandenburg and Lower Saxony; she took her current post in February 2013, when Schavan, a close ally of Merkel, resigned after losing her Ph.D. in a plagiarism scandal (Science, 15 February 2013, p. 747). Coming in just months before federal elections, she had little room to maneuver. She kept her post after the center-right Christian Democrats—the party to which she and Merkel belong—formed a new coalition government with the Social Democrats in November.
Wanka found Germany’s science landscape in better shape than any time since the second world war. Research spending has increased continuously since Merkel took office, and in 2012, public and private research spending combined, at €79.5 billion, reached 3% of the gross domestic product for the first time. Meanwhile, several high-profile programs have helped make German research more competitive. The widely praised €4.6 billion Excellence Initiative, for instance, gave universities the chance to compete for extra funding and the title of “elite university” (Science, 20 October 2006, p. 400). Meanwhile, the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation has poured money into nonuniversity organizations like the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association, with 5% annual increases from 2011 through 2015.
Science managers are anxious for the good times to continue. The new coalition has set aside an extra €9 billion for research and education, and it has pledged part of that money to keep raising the budgets of nonuniversity organizations. Wanka says she wants to lock in a 3% annual increase for the next 4 or 5 years. That is welcome news, says Karl Ulrich Mayer, president of the Leibniz Association, which is home to 89 research institutes and museums. But between a 5% salary increase negotiated by unions last year and already-planned projects, “there will be a squeeze on real increases,” he says.
The bigger worry, however, is the state of the universities. Under the German constitution, basic financing of education, including universities, is the responsibility of the Länder. The coalition has set aside two-thirds of the €9 billion to help the states. State leaders want a large portion of that money without any strings attached, but the federal government wants at least part of it earmarked for universities. Student numbers are rising every year, buildings are old and in need of repair, and many Länder are pressed for money. As a result, the gap between research at universities and at institutions like Max Planck is widening, says Horst Hippler, head of the German Rectors’ Conference. “The key question is how to finance the universities with federal funds,” says Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, secretary-general of the Human Frontier Science Program Organization and a former DFG president.
The Excellence Initiative was one solution, but its funding runs out in 2017. Figuring out how to build on the program is a top priority, Wanka says. A formal evaluation will start in June, and she is discussing with the Länder her ideas for what to do next. Schavan also used another option: allowing universities and nonuniversity research institutes to merge into cooperative units eligible for federal funding. (The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology is one example.)
But many science leaders say these initiatives are only Band-Aids and that a constitutional amendment is necessary. Any federal encroachment on the powers of the Länder is contentious, however; Wanka will need to wrangle state politicians into cooperation. “Changing the constitution is one of my major goals for this legislative period,” she says. “But it will be difficult.” Asked why it is taking so long to pour the coalition agreement into concrete policies, Wanka says setting aside the money was an important first step. “Now we’re talking about how these investments should happen. That is complex and needs to be well thought out,” she says. “But we are in the home stretch.”
Wanka’s experience in East Germany may help her navigate the challenge. She understands the universities’ predicament, having spent much of her professional life at the University of Applied Sciences in Merseburg, including 6 years as its rector. And as a mathematician, she may have a different style than most politicians. In the run-up to German reunification, many East Germans who worked in science or engineering—Wanka and Merkel are just the most prominent examples—came into politics, says Jörg Hacker, head of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina; they tend to be more observant and analytical, he says. “I think that has really enriched our political culture.”
Wanka says politicians with a background in science perhaps approach politics more pragmatically. “We may think more … like in a chess game.” German scientists are waiting expectantly for her next move.

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