Press Release No. 1 | January 11, 2016

Kicking Off a New Year for Science Policy: DFG Underlines Expectations of New Excellence Initiative

"Further boost for competitively funded, top-level university research open to all fields in a science-based process" / Press conference and New Year reception in Berlin

"Further boost for competitively funded, top-level university research open to all fields in a science-based process" / Press conference and New Year reception in Berlin

At the start of 2016, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) has underlined the expectations of the research community with regard to the planned new federal-state initiative for the further development of the Excellence Initiative. At a press conference in Berlin on Monday morning, a good two weeks before the submission of the report of an international expert committee (the "Imboden Committee") to the Joint Science Conference of the federal and state governments (GWK), DFG President Professor Dr. Peter Strohschneider and Secretary General Dorothee Dzwonnek shared their views on the possible objectives and format of a new round of the programme first launched in 2006. They also discussed the criteria and role of research and politics in the future decision-making process.

On Monday evening, the largest research funding organisation and central self-governing organisation of the research community in Germany welcomed more than 300 guests including researchers, politicians and other leading figures to its traditional New Year reception. The central theme of the DFG President's speech was also the Excellence Initiative.

In conversation with journalists, the DFG President pointed out by way of introduction that, following the basic resolutions by the heads of the federal and state governments on the continuation and further development of the Excellence Initiative at the end of 2014, the research community has been waiting for over a year for its concrete implementation. "This waiting has led to growing nervousness, especially among the institutions currently in receipt of funding, who want to know what is going to happen next, but also among researchers who want to apply for new funding and the research organisations who would have to organise a new competition," said Strohschneider.

But with the new year and the politicians' self-imposed timetable, the time is now near to make the decisions that will have a long-term impact on research and the research system, he continued. "According to the Imboden report, a coherent, complete concept for a new federal-state initiative needs to be negotiated by the end of April in the GWK and by the end of June by the heads of government. So the federal and state governments must come to an agreement in the next six months – for the good of research and society as a whole."

The further development of the Excellence Initiative must first and foremost be designed to further improve top-level research at universities and thus enhance the capabilities of the research system as a whole, the DFG President emphasised. For this reason, the new federal-state initiative must contain "as a central element a special funding instrument for the very best university research". It was with this end in mind that the DFG proposed the establishment of "centres of excellence" at the beginning of 2015. These are intended to replace the funding lines of graduate schools and clusters of excellence and allow the funding of top-level research to be combined with financial support for early career researchers. This suggestion has met with widespread approval among researchers and policymakers.

In addition to a special funding instrument for top-level research, there will be a continuing need for competition between universities, as the DFG President pointed out. "However, the most beneficial way to implement this has yet to be decided."

The concrete form of the new Excellence Initiative, he emphasised, must follow the same key points that have made the programme successful so far and have significantly increased the capabilities and international visibility of top-level university research in Germany. "The new competition must also be open to the full breadth of research fields and topics. Both existing and new projects must be able to participate in it. And there must be funding periods that extend beyond normal project durations."

Finally, no less important to the success of a new round of competition is a decision-making system that "must satisfy the highest quality standards and result in science-based funding decisions founded on a scientific quality assessment", the DFG President stressed. "A decision-making process can only be considered science-based if the scientific quality of proposals takes priority over all other considerations – including those which, legitimate in themselves though they may be, arise from subject-specific or regional proportional considerations or political priorities."

In the forthcoming decisions the research community hopes that politicians will be committed to upholding these very principles, Strohschneider concluded. He noted that the declaration of the heads of the federal and state governments in December 2014 was fully in keeping with the competitive funding of top-level research open to all fields and in a science-based process, as well as trusting cooperation between politics and research. "We are happy to take them at their word," the DFG President said.