Make research funding more flexible, says German science council

Country’s top policy advisory body calls for project funding to be more generous with fewer constraints, as institutions’ budgets swell

February 9, 2023
Source: iStock

Germany’s research funding comes with too many strings attached, according to the country’s top policy advisory body, the Science Council (WR).

It has called on German federal and regional governments to allow universities more leeway over how they spend the bumper budgets promised by the “traffic light” coalition government in late 2021 and delivered just under a year later.

Universities cannot expect such spending to go on forever, the WR said in a report, and besides, the system of measuring success by projects won favours incumbents and puts huge pressure on those at the start of their careers. Universities in Germany fight for about 45 per cent of their public income, with stingy project budgets often needing a top-up from institutional coffers, further curbing universities’ discretion.

“The current system of research funding, in which third-party funding has gained a similar weight to basic funding for research, has reached its limits,” the WR’s working group of academics and government officials write. “In order for both basic and third-party funding to benefit research in the best possible way, a readjustment of basic and project funding is needed.”

Aside from a bigger share of block funding from Germany’s 16 federal states, the WR wants the federal government in Berlin to give those it funds the option of shifting money between projects and more flexibility over when money can be spent. For maximum efficiency, project budgets should include overheads and institutions should hire help to better manage their bigger share of block funding, for example by building up reserves, the council says.

The current set-up, in which lump sums for regional government can be saved but hard-won Berlin money must be spent, “creates totally incoherent financial management” for universities, Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education, a German thinktank, told Times Higher Education.

He said the proposed changes “would definitely be a move in the right direction”, and added that Germany’s tiered governments should be “more courageous”.

“What WR proposes will still require the university to write justifications for building a reserve for the next year; it will remain bureaucratic,” Dr Ziegele said. “I would rather allow the university to shift funding within their own discretion or even also introduce a lump sum for federal funding.”

A post-election promise from the federal coalition government to increase the share of project funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) that may be used for overheads was vague on numbers, but the WR said the share should rise to 40 per cent over the next decade.

Some of these more generous overhead allowances could go towards hiring research support staff, the council said, adding that more permanent research administration positions should be created at the faculty level and that budding academics must grasp the value of these back-office colleagues.

“A restructuring of research funding will help to ensure that German universities can continue to conduct excellent research for the benefit of our society, even in difficult times,” said Dorothea Wagner, who was replaced as chair of the Science Council by Wolfgang Wick last month. “It is all the more important to use the available funds in such a way that they serve research as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

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