A critical view of Germany’s academic funding landscape (or: an ode to the Humboldt Foundation!)

By Joern Fischer

What follows is an admittedly cynical view of how I perceive Germany’s academic funding landscape after moving here about one and a half years ago. I note some differences, especially to Australia.

I find colleagues spending larger shares of their time chasing funding. My (potentially false but nevertheless current) impression is that professors spend more time talking about grants than about journal articles; and certainly both a lot more than talking about important ideas in their fields. We’re way too busy for that, and such minor tasks must be left to postdocs, it seems…

Funding bodies appear to place overly strong emphasis on the structure of applications. You must adhere to a work package and task structure, or you must formulate clear hypotheses. What you must not be, it seems, is overly creative in how you plan to do your research; or leave any room for uncertainty in the research plan.

The review process by most funding bodies appears way more subjective than the peer-review system (a benchmark known to work okay, even if it’s not perfect).

Applied research, it seems, does not exist. Either you do glorified consulting work (so-called “funding calls” — basically the funding body tells you what to do, and you compete with others for the tender … sounds like consulting to me!). Or you do ‘basic research’, which appears to be, basically, hypothesis-testing. Creative, solution-oriented work with open questions posed by the researcher, seems impossibly difficult to get funding for. Interdisciplinary work is strongly recommended for glorified consultancies; but a big no-no in basic research applications.

You should, if at all possible, work in huge research consortia. Preferably, you should scope out months ahead who’s doing what, so you can align your strategic partners. Ideally, you know the right people in the EU to give them hints on how funding calls should be worded so they suit your interests. If you manage that, you’re really a pro who knows how to play the game. And that, after all, is the goal (isn’t it?).

Projects must be big, and they must have a nice structure of work packages and tasks. Those structures pretty much solidify research projects to an absolute minimum of flexibility … thereby, I would argue, stifling any room for flexibility or creativity, and pre-defining modes of integration (e.g. certain models) while excluding others (e.g. cognitive synthesis).

Creativity. Oh right. That used to be valued. Nope, haven’t seen much interest in that in the funding landscape so far. In structure, networks, and process, yes — but in creativity? Not yet.

I am eternally happy to be funded differently, for the moment, anyway! With a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, I have a lot more freedom than I would with many other funding schemes. To produce excellent research, freedom is what we need, not work packages and task structures. The Humboldt Foundation appears to have understood this, and I see it as a bright shining light in Germany’s funding darkness.

How do we get back to a world where we fund good ideas? Where professors are valued as intellectuals and thinkers, rather than as research bureaucrats? Who read the world, and see how it works, and how it can be improved?

If you think I’m overly cynical, do tell me. I would love to be encouraged that there is a funding world worth noting beyond the Humboldt Foundation! Go on, comment and tell me I’m just bitter and twisted, as well as wrong… 🙂



5 thoughts on “A critical view of Germany’s academic funding landscape (or: an ode to the Humboldt Foundation!)

  1. Thanks for the rare insight into how other systems work. As USA and UK look hard into changing fundamentally how scientific communications work it will be important that we observe critically how alternative academic environments operate. If you have more
    to say on the subject, especially of you have data the pro open access community would be very grateful!

    Clayton Bingham

    • Thanks Clayton — so here’s an open invitation to all our readers — comment to get more conversation going!

  2. Hi Joern – to be honest I managed only one very small project in my life. And was not easy – I am not that person. However, I contributed significantly to rise funds to different NGOs in my region – with ideas and thoughts. I am a bit invidious on those people who are able to rise funds but also have that very structured and ordered life to follow all the little details and steps which is needed to manage a project in an excellent way.

  3. I fully agree – incentives at universities include the amount of external funding, number of graduate students and publications. This all drives professors to increase the size of their groups and keep these big groups running – a rat race. As the value of publications is often difficult to quantify (e.g. with obtainable Impact Factors or Citations differing greatly between research fields), quantity is often more important than quality.
    This also means – in a comparison, for example, with many professors in the US – that the large group size that needs to be managed often distracts professors from being actively engaged in science. For example, there is often no time left to participate in discussions on current issues via letters to the editor – or even writing first-author papers.
    But I tend to disagree in one point: big consortia (such as the EU projects or big DFG projects) can be extremely stimulating if managed well, because the joint meetings etc. bring scientists with different opinions and expertises together and stimulate exchanging ideas.
    The most problematic issue is the German bureaucracy, which is increasing with all budget details being overregulated. And as it is well-known already from classical philosophical concepts: Overregulation produces crime – since correct behaviour is almost impossible given the rigorous straitjacket of rules.
    By the way, Joern – I like your excellent blog – really stimulating!
    Cheers, Teja

    • Interesting comment, thanks Teja! I haven’t been part of any big EU projects (yet?) — so of course a lot of my points are opinions, rather than necessarily observations based on experience. I’ll be glad to be convinced otherwise! And I imagine, as with so many things, a lot has to do with the inter-personal factors; managed well, I can imagine that even very large consortia can be quite fruitful.

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