Reflections on DFG funding policies: The DFG funds research in response to proposals by scientists – but also through contributing strategically to the development of priority areas. In both cases, the research objectives are defined from within the research system itself.
by Prof. Dr. Peter Strohschneider
Fundamental discussions, whether within or outside the area of research, offer opportunities for both assessment and self-assessment. If such discussions are to be productive, then these opportunities for reflection must be seized upon. Reflective thinking involves taking a step back to reflect on one’s own actions and experiences, or those of others, to rethink previous views or consider new ones. It does not always result in new insights, nor does it have to. The mere process of reflection and observation can serve to refine our position on a given topic or reshape it altogether.
With this in mind, the current debate on the future of the research system in Germany affords the DFG this very opportunity for critical reflection. How does the DFG enable and facilitate research development processes? What is the DFG’s structural role in the German research system?
Each answer to these questions will be rooted in the core responsibility set out in the DFG’s statutes, which is to promote all fields of science and the humanities in Germany. The DFG pursues this objective by funding curiosity-driven basic research – primarily at universities – at each phase of the research process, in projects of all sizes and across the whole spectrum of collaborative relationships between different research institutions. It is particularly important to encourage the dynamics inherent to scientific and scholarly research itself and to provide the opportunities in which they can unfold.
This is what sets the DFG apart from other research funding organisations: it funds research projects proposed by scientists and scholars in all fields of research directly. It goes without saying that the researchers or institutions submitting proposals must meet eligibility requirements, but the primary funding criterion is scientific quality. This curiosity-driven approach, and the organisation’s dedication to the self-governance of science and the humanities in Germany, has often led to the DFG being described as a bottom-up funding organisation. This is characteristic of the DFG’s general perception of itself but also of the way in which the DFG is perceived from the outside.
The DFG, however, has never practiced bottom-up funding strategies only. In fact, in 1952, almost immediately after its reestablishment following WWII, the DFG introduced a targeted funding mechanism called Priority Programmes. Priority Programmes were the first funding instrument used to stimulate and advance research in priority areas by publishing targeted calls for proposals.
The priority areas are defined by the DFG Senate, which is composed of elected members representing all areas of research. Suggestions thus derive from the communities themselves. The Senate also determines which research projects are then actually funded. This approach and these varied and direct links to the various research communities are still the defining features of the DFG’s Priority Programmes today.
This first approach in strategic research funding, which initially addressed specific research questions, was refined over the decades that followed to include structural aspects. For example, the Collaborative Research Centres and Research Units programmes have the goal of helping universities develop research structures and establish priorities.
The international system evaluation undertaken in 1999 took this approach even further. It recommended that the DFG intensify strategic elements of its funding policy and activities. As a result, innovative changes were made to the programme portfolio and a restructuring of the review process, which included redefining roles and responsibilities, was initiated. Review board members were tasked with helping the DFG identify and set research priorities, a task which they continue to fulfil this day.
Just over a decade ago, the DFG’s strategic funding activities were expanded to include Research Centres, the most extensive format for DFG funding. Due to its success, it served as a model for the second funding line in Germany’s Excellence Initiative. Here, too, research priorities are defined from the inside out and scientific quality again serves as the basis for eventual funding decisions. The most recently approved centre focusses on the topic of biodiversity research and is a joint venture involving the universities of Leipzig, Jena and Halle-Wittenberg.
These examples, and I could name many more, help to illustrate the DFG’s funding policy: to fund research in response to proposals from researchers directly and through strategic contributions and instruments designed to advance research areas, also with respect to technical and structural aspects. Strategic funding initiatives are thus just as characteristic of the DFG as are its funding principles and funding activities.
Finally, and above all, both approaches are response-mode approaches. Researchers themselves must continue to drive research and research developments. And it is this aspect which defines the special role of the DFG within the German research system: to stimulate curiosity-driven research from the inside out on the basis of quality. Although research relevance often goes hand in hand with social, economic or political relevance, this need not always be the case. Research performance, which plays an essential role in today’s knowledge society, is not possible without academic and research freedom.
Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider is President of the DFG.