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Tributes pour in after Germany’s science minister resigns

Germany’s science organisations have expressed regret following the resignation of science minister Annette Schavan, who stepped down on 9 February, unable to shake off claims that parts of her PhD have been plagiarised.

The Alliance of German Science Organisation said Schavan’s work as science minister improved the competitiveness of Germany’s universities and science institutions. In a statement issued on 10 February, the alliance said its members admire Schavan’s contributions to policies in science, research and education across the country and internationally.

“Her time in office saw important initiatives, such as the continuation of the Excellence Initiative, the pact for research and innovation, and the Higher Education Pact 2020,” the alliance stated, referring to several high-level funding pots for science and education that Schavan helped to create. “Her achievements will be felt long after she stepped down.”

Schavan lost her job after her alma mater, the University of Düsseldorf, withdrew her PhD that explored the relationship between religion and consciousness following plagiarism allegations. Chancellor Angela Merkel moved swiftly to replace her, appointing Johanna Wanka, Lower Saxony’s minister for research and culture as the new minister.

Despite concerns about the PhD, heads of science organisations say they want to honour Schavan’s work as minister. “I have experienced Frau Schavan as knowledgeable education expert and constructive partner for science,” said Jürgen Mlynek, the president of the Helmholtz Association. “Her resignation is a great loss for education and research in Germany.”

Schavan, meanwhile, is said to be planning to sue the university over its decision to withdraw her PhD. A report into the investigations was leaked to the press in October, and criticisms abound regarding the university’s internal investigation, which, some critics say, did not include enough outside expertise. It is thought that Schavan will take up these points in a possible court case.

Despite recognition that resigning was the right step, some ministers also criticised the PhD withdrawal process for “victimising” Schavan. “I am worried about the occasionally overheated and undifferentiated culture of outrage in our society, which sometimes kicks out capable heads too early,” said Waltraud Wende, the science minister of Schleswig-Holstein.

Wende called for better quality management at German universities to prevent plagiarism cases in the future, and to establish an official procedure for investigating suspicious PhDs. “We can learn a lot from Anglo-Saxon universities regarding these matters,” she said.

Schavan, who became science and education minister in 2009, pushed for a continuation of the Excellence Initiative, which funds Germany’s best research universities. She also worked on increasing international scientific exchange, and was awarded honorary titles from universities in China, Egypt and Israel in recognition of her efforts. As education minister, Schavan introduced compulsory second-language learning in primary schools.