UK-German research powerhouse could be even bigger

Seminar considers the achievements – and even greater potential – of academic partnerships between the countries

September 26, 2015
Members of the public perform the Conga dance
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Band together: exchange at undergraduate level is proving ‘difficult to grow’

“The UK and Germany are the research powerhouses of Europe.”

That is the view of Georg Krawietz, director of the London office of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). He was addressing a seminar organised by the DAAD to celebrate and promote research cooperation between Russell Group universities and 15 leading research-intensive universities and nine technische universitäten (or institutes of technology) in Germany that make up the country’s U15 and TU9 groups.

Speakers from such institutions described projects addressing everything from arthritis to manuscript cultures. They flagged up the fact that German and UK researchers co-author more papers with each other than with any other country apart from the US. Yet they also examined the problems standing in the way of even more effective collaboration.

Michael Butler, associate dean for enterprise and impact at the University of Southampton, was able to point to about 160 projects involving German partners (including about 50 universities) that his institution was involved in.

Yet if Anglo-German research cooperation was “very strong”, largely because both countries produced “excellent research with critical mass” and had “strong tradition[s] of industrial collaboration”, exchange at undergraduate level was proving “difficult to grow”.

Part of the problem, Professor Butler said, was that the curriculum in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects was “fairly uniform internationally” and “new cultural experience” was not always sufficient justification for studying abroad. One possible way ahead was to build on the fact that “research expertise/facilities are still a differentiator across institutions”. Another was to try to “exploit industrial links” through international internships or degrees incorporating a year in industry.

Gerhard Rödel, vice-rector for research at Dresden University of Technology, noted that Dresden currently had 132 research projects with 57 British universities (and 15 more under negotiation).

The pioneering “transcampus” project that it had created with King’s College London enabled clinical trials to become more efficient, not least by providing a larger and more diverse cohort of patients. Existing faculty members had joint appointments in both universities, often allowing them to apply for a wider range of grants.

Yet although Professor Rödel was keen on the idea of creating more collaborative research centres, the challenge for German universities often remained in “finding matching funding from Great Britain”.

A similar point was made by Myriam Poll, research careers programme officer for the German Research Foundation (DFG). Its programme of bilateral research training groups gave doctoral students a chance to spend six to 12 months in a partner institution abroad without extending their degrees.

It had funded about 100 such groups around the world since 1997, yet only six had been in the UK (and only two were still running). Whereas the German side was officially funded, matching funding on the British side was often lacking.

Jane Nicholson, associate director, impact and international at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, acknowledged that some research councils “focus on research outside Europe where there are more barriers and no [European Commission] funding”.

And Hans Jürgen Prömel, president of the Technical University of Darmstadt, flagged up language issues, structural factors such as varying lengths of degrees and different fee regimes as among the barriers to better Anglo-German links.

Yet at a time when we faced “the danger of the destabilisation of Europe”, he suggested, scientific collaboration was one of the essential tools for combating it.


Print headline: Research leviathan could be even bigger

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Reader's comments (1)

Maybe increased effort could be directed to funding more PhD collaboration at the SME level, a sector needing improved productivity performance to help dive UK competitiveness.