Sciences make their mark

March 31, 1995

Industry in the former East Germany is struggling, unemployment has rocketed and the social fabric is stretched to breaking point - but Bonn can claim that the costly and painful measures imposed on laboratory scientists and universities in the new Lander seem to be bearing fruit.

That was the overwhelming message that was relayed by a 20-strong German research delegation two weeks ago in London to British scientists, research council officials and senior civil servants.

The event was organised by the British embassy in Bonn, the German ministry of education and research and the British Council in Cologne.

David Lyscom, science and technology counsellor at the British embassy in Bonn, said: "The transformation in the organisation of science over the past few years has been stunning." He believes there are many areas of research in the new Lander which would lend themselves to collaborative work with British scientists.

The British Council has been working closely with the German Academic Exchange Service on an initiative, called Arc, to improve links between scientists in Britain and Germany.

Launched in 1989, collaborations made possible by Arc include a project between Glasgow University and Berlin's Humboldt University to find alternatives to ozone-destroying CFCs. Another involves a link-up between the University of Wales and Martin Luther University in Halle near Leipzig.

Materials science and engineering is one area where former German Democratic Republic scientists have considerable expertise. Their excellence in polymer research was highlighted at the seminar by Hans-Jorg Jacobasch, director of the Institute of Polymer Research in Dresden. He said that there has been a long tradition of excellence in materials science in eastern Germany stretching back to the development of the first synthetic fibres.

For Dr Jacobasch, reunification has, in science, meant the chance to have normal scientific relations with other countries. He said: "For many of us it is the first time in our lives to work under normal conditions. Certainly, under communist rule, we scientists were not afraid to get our hands dirty to improve our technology base. We struggled with inferior equipment but maybe that was a good thing - I like to think it encouraged us to be more self-motivated."

Under the former regime, visits abroad by scientists were strictly controlled by the Stasi, the East German secret police. Many of those allowed to go abroad were Stasi informants and were required to provide the organisation with reports on their trips.

The first-class research work at the institute has been recognised by Bonn. It has had to shave only 30 posts off its 1989 total of 260 employees. "Other laboratories have been much less fortunate," said Dr Jacobasch. "The changes that have been implemented by Bonn have been successful and will provide a strong base for the next generation of scientists. The salaries are reasonable and conditions stable."

Dr Jacobasch has learned never to tell Bonn that he has enough resources, staff and funds. "They'd only cut back support," he said. As it is, federal funds only provide salaries for 168 staff. Raking in the rest of the money involves Dr Jacobasch in endless visits to firms and filling in umpteen forms for Brussels.

But he is certainly not grumbling. Bonn's shakeout of research elsewhere has been fierce and stems from a big review of science in the former GDR by the federal government's science council, an advisory body that has the Council for Science and Technology as its British equivalent.

Launched in 1990 and completed in a year, the review led to the 36,000 workforce in public sector research laboratories being slashed by half over three years. Michael Maurer, head of the science council's research policy unit, said that the former GDR established six "classical" universities to focus primarily on teaching very broad range of courses. In addition three academies - including the East German Academy of Sciences - boasted 130 institutes in total responsible for research ranging from the fundamental to highly applied. The evaluation has resulted in the universities being absorbed in a group of 50 institutes of higher education, to which the academy institutes have been attached.

Dr Maurer said that in nearly all fields examined, the council's review teams discovered "hot spots" of top quality science. "We definitely did not expect to find such activity to the extent we did."

The organisation of science was highly centralised with monolithic academies. Some areas were skewed for all sorts of ideological reasons. There were, for example, more agriculture researchers than in western Germany.

He believes that the changes have helped enormously. During 1993/94 Bonn has given Pounds 2 billion siphoned off Bonn's Pounds 7 billion (at today's prices) budget for supporting all research including industrial work. Dr Maurer said: "Certainly scientists in western Germany may not be happy about it because it squeezes their resources, but they do recognise the need to provide support to their colleagues in the new Lander."

But Benno Schmidt-Kuntzel of the federal ministry of research and technology told the London meeting that while a new system for science and education has been mapped out for the former GDR, western Germany has perhaps lacked the courage to take stock of its own shortcomings in these areas.

"We could have learnt a few lessons as well - it was an opportunity for self assessment that passed us by," he said. The conditions for doing top science in the new Lander are much improved with spanking new state-of-art equipment and facilities playing a key role.

But while public science has been transformed for the better, the same cannot be said of industrial research in the new Lander. Dr Schmidt-Kuntzel said company research has collapsed and activity is close to zero.

Helping to breathing life back into such work is clearly a key challenge facing Bonn but, Dr Maurer said, it will be industry that will have to shoulder much of the responsibility.

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