Joining the fast lane

July 21, 2000

Introducing our four-page survey of research in Germany, Jennie Brookman looks at how the country is making more effort to attract and retain young scientists

Germany is among the world's top five research countries, but it has one big weakness in comparison with its main rivals, the United States, Japan, France and Britain: its unfavourable working environment for young researchers.

The biggest challenge facing German research is to find ways to support and accelerate the careers of young scientists to reverse the country's brain drain, says Jurgen Mlynek, vice-president of the German Research Council (DFG), who will take up a new appointment as president of the historic Humboldt University in Berlin in September.

"Young scientists in the US have the chance to become assistant professors in their early 30s, allowing them to work independently with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it. By comparison, a German scientist is on average 42 years old before becoming a full professor," says Mlynek, a physicist.

Once German academics have won their doctorates, they are required to work on their habilitation, the postdoctoral lecturing qualification. This usually takes six to eight years, during which time they generally work as teaching assistants to their habilitation supervisor. Once they have the qualification, they must usually wait to be "called" to a professorial post by a different university. And that is not the end of the story. To make the leap from a "C3" associate professor to a "C4" full professor, they usually have to be appointed to yet another university.

"As a result, they have no security to plan their future," Mlynek says. "This takes up a lot of time and energy and holds people back considerably. Yet it is well known that a person's most creative years are between the ages of 30 and 40. Most pioneering achievements are made during this period, when people have the most energy, the greatest self-confidence and are more prepared to take risks."

Many of Germany's best and brightest go abroad to speed up their careers. The DFG is Germany's central public funding organisation for academic research: it funds one-third (23,000) of Germany's young researchers on scholarships or research posts. Recently, it has been having more difficulty filling positions on research projects in natural science and engineering. Yet it says that increasingly more young scientists are using DFG foreign scholarships as a springboard to a faster career on the international track.

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that Germany produces too few graduates in engineering and natural sciences: just 1,040 per 100,000 employees - well below the average of the 29 OECD member states of 1,500 per 100,000 employees. Evidence suggests this is hitting German industry and its supply of new academic recruits.

In an attempt to stem this brain drain, the DFG and the German government in 1998 set up the Emmy Noether programme to encourage early independence for especially talented junior scientists. The scheme, named after the mathematician who became the first female scientist to be awarded a professorship at Gottingen University in 1918, offers five-year grants to 100 postdoctoral researchers each year. They spend two years abroad and three years conducting an independent research project in Germany. Before now, this was not possible until they had their habilitation. Participants can speed up the phase between a doctorate and a professorship considerably.

Postgraduate colleges, established by the DFG, are also eating away at university hierarchies. There, 4,500 PhD students receive interdisciplinary training and better counselling than a PhD supervisor is able to give.

But the DFG is pressing for further reforms to encourage promising researchers. A working group led by Mlynek last month recommended many more initiatives. It called for more funding opportunities for postdoctoral researchers to allow them to work independently.

It supported the government's plan to create junior professorships under a planned reform of academics' conditions of service. These would be open to academics immediately after attaining their PhD and would be limited to six years. Those who proved themselves in this period would be promoted to a full professor without necessarily having to change university. As well as speeding up academic careers, the junior professorship would also dispense with the need for the habilitation, which the DFG believes has become a hindrance to progress and should be abolished.

Mlynek's working group also recommended that Germany introduce graduate studies similar to the research schools in the Netherlands. And it says existing graduate colleges should be developed further to strive for more international cooperation, more special research areas and more industrial research.

It also wants to regulate and improve the conditions for postdoctorate candidates by developing principles for their counselling and supporting early independent publication by members of research projects. Another recommendation is measures to get school children and undergraduates interested and involved in research as early as possible.

One young German researcher complained recently in a newspaper interview that such reforms are irrelevant if the larger universities choose to ignore them. But Mlynek believes that universities will be eager to adopt the new programmes and initiatives.

When he takes up his five-year presidency at Humboldt in September, he aims to make the encouragement of young academic researchers a top priority. "If some universities create a good environment for researchers, people will vote with their feet," he said.

Young researchers also complain that many creative ideas are drowned in bureaucracy and formalities. But Mlynek rejects this. He says the DFG takes an average of just over five months to turn round a funding application, which is quite fast by international standards. It has also recently revamped its system of experts who evaluate research applications to reduce the average age of its members and increase the proportion of women on committees.

But Mlynek accepts that bureaucracy is a factor that puts off many young foreign scientists from working in Germany.

"We could never be as attractive as the US to young scientists from countries such as India or China because the language and cultural differences make it harder for them, from a family as well as a professional point of view. The German authorities need to become more foreigner-friendly," he says.

The German government recently unveiled a "green card" initiative, which is intended to offer work permits to 20,000 highly qualified computer specialists from non-European Union countries to plug the expertise gap in German industry.

Mlynek considers this a step in the right direction. But he is among many academics who would like to see the measure expanded to include experts from other fields - not just to solve German industry's short-term expertise shortage, but also to attract more talented young academics from abroad as a long-term investment in German research.

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