Developing the DFG’s aims and funding programmes

The way in which the DFG follows and implements its general aim of serving “science in all its branches” has changed dramatically over the decades of its existence. The sub-goals listed have been adjusted and expanded in accordance with changing requirements.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the DFG was still, as Patrick Wagner put it, “the preserve of tenured professors”. As a self-governing scientific organisation, it considered itself an association of male researchers for male researchers (there were, at the time, hardly any female researchers). It continued to adhere to this conviction even as it opened up its services to a wider audience during the subsequent two decades. In 1959, the paragraph on promoting young researchers was added to the statutes and, in 1971, non-professorial teaching staff were granted active voting rights in the specialist committees.

During this period, however, “financial support for research projects” was restricted to funding individual projects, despite the fact that the introduction of the Priority Programmes in 1953 and Research Units in 1962 added early structural weight. In addition, the DFG had, from the very outset, attempted to drive research in particular research areas whose development it considered important and necessary by publishing white papers. The determining factor in awarding funding was, however, always the scientific evaluation of each project by the DFG’s specialist reviewers and committees.

With the “Collaborative Research Centre” programme in 1968, the DFG undertook visible responsibility for (and gained influence on) the development of universities. The programme’s launch also allowed institutions, rather than just individual researchers, to submit proposals to the DFG for the first time. Consistent prioritisation of scientific criteria enabled the DFG to push through researcher recognition of Collaborative Research Centres as an instrument for achieving scientific goals—without restricting the programme’s structurising effects. Thus, the programme obtained the communities’ trust, and this obvious recognition earned it increasing respect and weight, even outside the scientific milieu.

When the Research Training Groups—a concept created by the German Council of Science and Humanities—were being established, therefore, it was logical for the Council to ask the DFG to implement this programme. Ultimately, it was only natural for the DFG to take over this task. In hindsight, the resistance that was felt within the DFG statutory bodies at the time is understandable. In one fell swoop, this programme eliminated the usual positions in science, politics and administration. Instead, the programme focused on harmonising the (not always congruent) interests of early-career researchers and their mentoring professors. It did not, however, result in conflict, as even the process of establishing the Research Training Groups was, from the very outset, based on the criterion of research quality, with training quality and content taking a back seat. While this may initially have restricted the effectiveness and range of the programme, it did enable the community to accept and trust the concept of structured doctoral funding at a high and credible level, and it did so without creating the impression of a coup or of blurring the differences between subject cultures. Major reform projects like the Bologna Process could learn from this experience.

With the launch of the DFG Research Centres—and, in particular, with the adoption of the Excellence Initiative—the DFG has become even more of a system-defining institution. It is no longer merely a platform for competition between researchers for funding; instead, it is also involved in the task of organising competition between the universities. In designing the initiative, the DFG is also defining the framework conditions under which the German universities will assert themselves in the international competition for staff, students and research success. The fact that this task was assigned to the DFG underscores the trust that the German federal government and the states have in its competence. The foundation of this trust, however, is that placed in the DFG by science.

Over the past few years, programme design has focused particularly on funding more risky and interdisciplinary projects. These require more intensive support, particularly when carried out at the universities. With this aim in mind, the DFG launched the Reinhart Koselleck projects funding initiative. The Koselleck Projects are aimed at leveraging the potential of outstanding researchers to produce top-quality results. They do this by giving them the opportunity to carry out particularly innovative and—in a positive sense—risky projects. This type of funding targets appointed professors (or those researchers eligible for appointment) with outstanding scientific resumes, great scientific potential and innovative research goals. The particular character of these projects means that a detailed project description, like that currently required when applying for an individual grant, is not possible. Indeed, in this type of project, it is more difficult than usual to predict the path the research will take, with the result that only an outline can be submitted with the proposal. The project process requires a high level of flexibility and freedom.

One cross-disciplinary task which the DFG has acquired over the years is the promotion of equality between men and women in the scientific and academic communities. This, too, is an issue relevant to research quality. The credo of funding excellent research without taking into account factors which do not pertain to science requires men and women to be equal. This will secure the diversity and originality required to produce outstanding research. On 3 July 2002, therefore, the General Assembly of the DFG enshrined equality for men and women in science as a programme aim in § 1 of the DFG statutes. This was followed in November 2006 by the Offensive für Chancengleichheit von Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftlern (“Action for Equal Opportunities for Male and Female Researchers”), which was passed jointly by the DFG and other major research organisations. The Senate working group “Chancengleichheit im Wissenschaftssystem” (“Gender Equality in the Scientific System”) was set up immediately afterwards to review existing measures and propose new ones. On this basis, a portfolio of opportunities was developed. These are used today in research funding and also in the DFG Head Office itself, as well as being documented in the DFG’s online toolbox, together with best practice examples. As a further step, the DFG’s Executive Committee convened a commission in December 2007 whose task it was to develop the Research-Oriented Standards on Gender Equality for the DFG. These standards were intended to ensure that the members of the DFG take into account the aim of gender equality in their structural development and hiring practices. In July 2008, the General Assembly voluntarily committed to uphold the paper prepared by the Commission and the related implementation concept. The interim reports that have been received to date show evidence of considerable progress.

Lastly, transfer activities were designated an additional cross-cutting goal in 2010. The heart of the new “Knowledge Transfer” concept was the expansion of knowledge transfer beyond engineering fields. The aim was to ensure that researchers from all disciplines are better supported in developing the results obtained through their basic research. In doing so, the focus was not on the value-added chain, but on the realisation that application aspects themselves are of tremendous relevance for knowledge acquisition in basic research. Knowledge transfer in this context involves changing one’s perspective, i.e. looking at things from another’s point of view of another, using a different approach and frame of reference. This form of knowledge transfer focuses on the new scientific ideas generated by changing perspectives, rather than on purely utilitarian concepts. This universal approach to interdisciplinary research was now, analogously, to be translated to knowledge transfer and developed into one of the DFG’s cross-cutting topics.

The fact that the DFG today is able to span the entire spectrum from structurising major funding to individual projects carried out by early-career researchers is due to its consistency in adhering to its basic tenet: that of serving science by identifying and funding the best researchers and projects in science and by focusing its actions unswervingly on scientific benefits. It is easy to see here the antithesis of politics and to separate the aims and standards of the DFG from those of politics. Doing so would, however, be short-sighted. Indeed, the German federal and state governments have—through their involvement in the DFG’s statutory bodies and their constructive participation in the DFG’s development—shown that they support and appreciate the DFG’s fundamental approach. In this context we should, for example, mention the system evaluation undertaken by the German federal and state governments and international experts in 1998/99. Finally, the fact that the principle of funding basic research purely on the basis of scientific merit is recognised and supported by politics is indicated by the establishment of the European Research Council (ERC) by the European Union. This organisation is applying precisely these principles in the field.

Looking back, it is, therefore possible to see that, in the course of its development, the DFG has consistently pursued its goals in line with the same principles—enduring adherence to scientific standards and collaboration with the scientific communities. The goals themselves, however, have become considerably more complex than the formulation of the Statutes initially suggest.

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