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The DFG’s Funding Strategy

In keeping with the DFG’s concept of its role as a self-governing organisation, any eligible researcher may submit a funding proposal at any time and on any research topic. As the DFG does not specify a topic for proposals, but, instead, reacts to proposals on any topic, it promotes research primarily in what is known as “response mode”. Just as, however, no research develops autonomously, the DFG has not operated purely in response mode for decades. The DFG’s task of funding the self-determined development of science has always included an obligation to further progress. This obligation is the result of resource allocation within the competition and the funding decisions associated with it. These, ultimately, also affect activities undertaken in the corresponding scientific disciplines and research locations.

The structurising effects of funding decisions are demonstrated at the lowest level through prioritisation. This is becoming increasingly necessary—and imperative when financial constraints prevent funding being awarded to all positively reviewed proposals. The significance and effects of both factors (discipline-specific or structural programmes and indirect definition through prioritisation of funding decisions) have increased over the years. The DFG’s funding volume—and, thus, its weight as a funding organisation—have also increased accordingly.

The DFG’s funding strategy is apparent on three relevant levels:

The fact that the DFG’s funding decisions are based primarily on scientific merit means that the organisation is making a fundamental strategic decision at the very first level. In prioritising scientific quality and rejecting other possible criteria—such as funding quotas for specific regions or fields, societal relevance or economic expediency—the DFG is clearly committing itself to basic research. This is the only field in which the criterion of “scientific merit” can be consistently applied. Simply setting quality as the DFG’s top priority indicates a clear, strategic direction.

At the second level, the DFG pursues five cross-cutting aims. These are as follows: to strengthen interdisciplinary research and international cooperation between researchers; to provide early-career support; to promote equality between men and women in research; and to achieve networking beyond the institutional boundaries of the scientific system. These goals are pursued in all funding programmes to varying degrees. The main criteria, however, is always the DFG’s insistence on scientific quality, with other aspects being of secondary consideration. This means that a project which promises to provide a high level of early-career support but which is not, from a scientific standpoint, particularly innovative, will not receive funding.

One distinguishing feature of the DFG’s strategic activity is particularly evident in the structural goals to which several of the funding programmes must adhere. Collaborative Research Centres, Research Centres and Clinical Research Units are, for example, intended to create research focuses which result in structural modifications at research facilities. The DFG does not set these focuses itself. Instead, it provides appropriate strategic instruments to the universities involved. The same principle that applies to all funding programmes applies particularly to this one: the DFG affects the development of a specialist field or a location by supplying the requisite resources. The DFG’s strategic activities are never direct or prescriptive. Instead, the onus is on others to take up the opportunities offered. Just as the DFG does not carry out its own research and does not, therefore, intervene directly in the research process, it also does not directly implement its own funding strategies.

The constant discussions of the DFG’s remit and the limits on its funding strategy and strategic activities centre around the third level—the discipline-specific funding initiatives. This level is also nothing new for the DFG: after all, the organisation can look back on sixty years of Priority Programme experience. The funding programme was firmly established in 1952 with the aim of “stimulating funding for those disciplines in which Germany is severely lagging behind its international competitors or which otherwise appear particularly important.” The process of establishing Priority Programmes has been modified several times since then. It still, however, retains its basic structure, under which researchers first provide the Senate with suggestions for new research focuses. The Senate then has these suggestions evaluated and selects the most promising, before announcing the Priority Programme and inviting researchers to submit proposals. This process of requesting “double feedback” from the scientific communities (i.e. taking suggestions from communities and requesting proposals from the communities) has established a pattern which distinguishes all the DFG’s discipline-specific strategic activities.

The DFG’s discipline-specific initiatives stem from the realisation that a purely bottom-up approach can lead to unwanted fracturing and logjams, ultimately inhibiting self-organised research funding. Self-governing institutions are not necessarily immune to forms of institutionalisation, to the formation of staff networks, or to tendencies to obstruct the progress of innovation. Measures used to counteract such inclinations must, however, be implemented in keeping with the spirit of self-government. For this reason, the DFG has constantly improved its peer review process, and has taken measures to combat any such tendencies in its statutory bodies and in the Head Office early on. Strategic action is, however, not motivated purely by the need to neutralise unwanted side-effects. If the DFG provides discipline-specific incentives, these must have an entirely scientific justification. The DFG’s discipline-specific activities are based on the two crucial elements of a competition: speed and comparison, with the frame of reference being the global development of basic research. Strategic research activities in a specific discipline always stem from the principal questions. These can be formulated as follows:

  • Where can the strengths of science in Germany be supported in order for it to become or remain an international leader?

  • Where are there weaknesses that must be dealt with in order to prevent essential scientific developments from being blocked?

  • Where are internationally recognisable developments not adopted, or adopted only hesitantly?

  • Where does an (often discipline-specific) consensus prevent support for unusual, risky research?

The DFG can avail itself of a multifaceted portfolio of instruments for implementing subject-specific strategic initiatives. While, in principle, all funding programmes are suitable for this purpose, the following instruments have proven particularly effective over the past few years:

  • Statements and white papers

  • Roundtable discussions and workshops

  • Bilateral and multilateral announcements

  • Workshops for early-career investigators

  • Ideas competitions

  • Announcements for establishing Research Units

  • Priority Programmes

  • DFG Research Centres

Strategic activities in selected fields of research do not focus solely on new development. In many cases, they focus on the targeted expansion and establishment of growing research fields.

The group of people who drive these strategic initiatives is as varied as the different funding formats for their implementation. It is an expression of the DFG’s concept of its role as a self-governing organisation in science, as well as of the strength of its statutory body structures, that such strategic initiatives are the product neither of a rigid series of processes, nor of a single statutory body (which would reserve all rights to the initiative). Instead, they draw from a variety of sources. The legitimation for the DFG’s strategic funding activities—that they must be science-driven and carried out in close consultation with the communities—allows initiatives to be generated from different sides. Suggestions, therefore, come:

  • Directly from the specialist communities

  • From the review boards

  • From Head Office in agreement with the review boards

  • From project groups implemented by the Executive Committee

  • From the Senate Commissions or the Subcommittees of the Senate and Joint Committee

  • Directly from the Senate

  • From the Executive Committee.

The DFG is aware that its processes must remain flexible in order to provide the greatest possible openness for suggestions from all scientific circles. Regardless of the channel through which suggestions are received, consulting and decision-making are carried out by the Executive Committee and the Senate.

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