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Local difficulty

Germany’s national politicians don’t want to talk about science. Inga Vesper explains why, with funding at the state level in crisis, that’s a problem.

Considering that Germany’s public bodies spend €40 billion a year on R&D, the subject is curiously absent from political debate as we approach the parliamentary elections on 22 September. Its contribution to the economy is rarely mentioned, and when Angela Merkel, a former professional chemist, boasts about her government’s successes, she seldom mentions the country’s growing academic excellence.

Worse still, out of the glare of the campaign, no party has made a serious effort to propose future budgets or address issues such as competitiveness, quality and collaboration in academia.

This torpor supposedly reflects the healthy state of science in Germany. Funding has escaped government cuts and businesses continued to spend on innovation during the financial crisis. Money goes in; products come out. So what is there for politicians to worry about?

A lot, actually. But the problem is not the large-scale national funding dispensed by the German research ministry. Instead, it can be found in the core funding from the federal states. It is here that politicians’ inattention is jeopardising Germany’s position as a science leader.

In Germany it is the 16 federal states, not the central government, that meet everyday university expenses. States decide and manage higher education budgets, and provide core funding for the public research institutions under their jurisdiction. They also pay for nearly all the infrastructure of local science ventures, including university labs, and decide how many researchers and professors their universities can hire.

Germany’s federal states have suffered severe budget cuts due to falling tax income, spiralling bills for pensions and benefits and, in some cases, bad management. Overall government budgets are rising, but local budgets are increasingly constrained. In Saxony, for example, 98.6 per cent of the €370-million higher education budget is earmarked for expenses such as student support and building maintenance, leaving almost no scope for flexibility or responsiveness in research funding.

This has put universities and public research institutions in a squeeze. Central government is spending money on large projects, international collaboration and hot topics such as renewable energy. But with hardly any money to hire scientists, rent equipment or give budding academics a helping hand, institutions are struggling to make best use of the funds.

One reason for the failures of local governments is that the power of mainstream parties was eroded in state-level elections in 2009 and 2010. In many states, protest voting gave fringe outfits such as the Party of Free Voters, Alternative for Germany and Party of Bible-Faithful Christians considerable power. Five years on, these parties have proved themselves accomplished fulminators against the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Greens. But they have utterly failed to produce any sensible plans for dealing with state budget problems.

In July, the DFG, Germany’s main research agency, sought to highlight the problem. It said that applications from universities for money to pay for basic supplies had increased considerably, whereas funding applications for large-scale projects and collaborations had declined.

“We have reached a dangerous slope,” warned DFG president Peter Strohschneider. “While independent research institutes are gifted with reliable and sufficient funding from the federal government, the basic funds for universities, which are funded by the states, are stagnating or even reducing.”

This issue has, however, not troubled politicians much. Even at the local level, where the problems are already obvious to students in overcrowded lecture theatres and scientists in decrepit offices, elected representatives have had nothing to say. 

This is a shame, because the election could be a chance for voters to change things on the ground. The small parties model their agendas on those of the big players. If national politicians had focused on science funding and academic excellence, it would have filtered down to local level. As it is, the lack of any such debate at the national level allows state governments to get away with doing nothing.

Due to Germany’s continuing disaffection with politics, the small parties are likely to emerge even stronger from the coming election. And unless science and higher education become campaign issues, they will see no reason to devise their own policies on them. For Germany’s universities and research institutions, this could mean another five years of watching their foundations crumble.

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