Peter strohschneider on research: self-help group for scientists

The German Research Foundation is more popular than ever as a funder of research projects. But more competition does not boost performance.

Laser light experiments in Jena, which are funded by the DFG. Photo: dpa

Mr. Strohschneider, is it accurate to call you the president of the richest self-help group in the world?

Peter Strohschneider: I wouldn’t say self-help group; we are the self-governing! organization of science in Germany. And we are indeed a remarkably well-funded funding organization.

In 2012, the DFG spent over 2.5 billion euros on funding research projects. The importance of such third-party funding is growing, and as the largest third-party funder, the importance of your organization is also growing. Others would be happy about this, but you are complaining. Why?

I am not complaining about the increase in importance. I am criticizing a scientific system in which the importance of third-party funding and thus of the DFG has changed considerably. This also has undesirable consequences.

Which ones?

The DFG is increasingly being forced into the role of basic financier of universities. But that is not what it is there for. According to its history, its structure and its internal constitution, DFG is a supplementary financier. If you wanted a nationwide funding agency for research, you would need different procedures and decision-making structures.

Do you want to turn the DFG into a general agency for research funding?

No. And I don’t want the DFG to be forced into such a role either. I think it’s right to distinguish between budget-linked basic funding and quality-oriented supplementary funding.

The DFG specializes in the latter. But it has long since ceased to be able to fund all the great projects.

The competitive situation is in fact intensifying drastically in some cases. This is particularly evident in individual funding. Success rates have halved, while our budget has doubled in the last eight years. That is disturbing.

It’s mainly due to the large number of applications. Why is everyone rushing to the DFG?

Various systemic effects play a role here. Universities are structurally underfunded; not only in terms of teaching and buildings, but also in terms of research. In many areas, such as the natural sciences, you can hardly do serious research anymore if you don’t attract third-party funding. Moreover, third-party funding is increasingly becoming a secondary currency in the science system. Universities privilege third-party-funded fields. If you are a third-party funding king or queen at your institute, then you have other academic enforcement options. It is a widespread practice that newly hired professors should submit an application to the DFG in order to receive a performance bonus or to have their position made permanent. The decisive factor is then the application as such, not the success of the application and certainly not the success of the research. This is highly problematic.

born in Stuttgart in 1955, is Professor of German Medieval Studies at the University of Munich. He has been President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) since 2013.

So as DFG president, you help decide professional livelihoods, who earns how much and which research area becomes how powerful at a university?

In many cases, and indirectly at any rate. For a long time now, the DFG has not only decided on the funding of a particular research project. Our decisions are the basis for all kinds of secondary effects that build on them.

Nobody is happy about the fact that third-party funding is increasingly becoming the secondary currency of science. But everyone is playing along, including the DFG. Why?

You have to answer this question systemically. It is primarily due to the constellation of tensions between the federal and state governments. I have always said polemically that the federalism reform has brought about a functional differentiation. Some have the resources, others the competencies. One can, the other may.

The federal government can finance the universities, but is not allowed to …

and the states may, but cannot. The federal government has a larger budget, which it can only contribute to the universities in the form of projects, i.e. not as basic funding. Non-university research institutes, on the other hand, may receive basic funding from the federal government. As a result, non-university research is in principle better financed than research at universities. And while third-party funding is becoming more important than basic funding at universities, the share of competitively acquired funds is declining at non-university research. In the neoliberal discourse, it has always been said that more competition enhances performance. But the science system takes this into account mainly at the universities, while at non-university research it is always recognized that adequate basic funding is a prerequisite for productivity.

Does that mean less competition at universities?

That means a better balance of competitively and non-competitively allocated funding.

Aren’t you making it a bit easy on yourself if you put all the blame on the system? The DFG is a relevant player in the system.

The DFG is not responsible for the federal financial constellation. As for myself, my activities in science policy began with the discussion about constitutional reform. I argued against it.

Yes, in 2006, but today no one is banging the table anymore. The scientific community sighs in anguish, but only quietly, because in the Pact for Research and Innovation, politicians have committed themselves to increasing the budgets of the major research funding organizations every year.

There is no such thing as one science. The various scientific organizations have different functions and therefore different interests. However, I believe that the DFG is making a self-critical effort to reflect on its own funding activities. We are currently having intensive discussions about our portfolio and the further development of our programs.

What do you want to change?

It’s still too early for results. But one of the things I could imagine is increasing the proportion of funds that are awarded not on the basis of applications but on the basis of judgments about past research performance. In the jargon, they are called merit grants.

The sociologist Stefan Kuhl has proposed that the entire system be geared to such merit grants, i.e., that good research results be awarded rather than good application prose.

There is nothing wrong with good prose.

That’s what the Germanist says.

I’ll leave my linguistic preferences aside for a moment. The DFG does not award funding for good prose. But switching all research funding to merit grants would be neither possible nor sensible. Among other things, it would then be completely unclear how to deal with people who have not yet earned any scientific merit.

Kuhl proposes that awards also be given for term papers.

If one switches completely to a reputation system, there are again undesirable effects. But a better balance between one type and the other is desirable.

Isn’t the growing pressure of third-party funding also related to precariousness in the science system? Universities hire scientists primarily on the basis of third-party funding and for a few months. They then have to sacrifice part of their research time to raise new third-party funds in order to extend their position. Couldn’t the DFG pay more attention to ensuring that its funding billions are used to create adequate positions?

There are many reasons for this. However, if we were to actively pursue a personnel policy, this would immediately be criticized as interference.

When the DFG set standards for equal opportunities for women in research, it was not criticized for doing so. On the contrary, it was a pioneer!

For the organization, it is even a question whether it wants to continue the trend of tying the allocation of funds with increasing intensity to structural interventions. I, for one, am very skeptical about this. The DFG is supposed to fund the best research, not the whole system. I’m not saying that precarity is not a problem.

But the DFG is not responsible.

I wonder if the DFG is the right instrument to solve this problem that actually exists.

The grand coalition has announced that the federal government wants to contribute more to the basic funding of universities. Do you have any idea how this could be done without lifting the cooperation ban?

No, although the question of the best way is the crucial one. In any case, I don’t think much of limiting the discussion to a specific constitutional amendment. In my view, an interstate treaty could offer a plausible solution. But even if the federal government then invested additional money in basic funding, it would have to be ensured that the states did not use this additional money as an opportunity to cut funding elsewhere.

Under the current conditions, do you see any chance at all that the relationship between basic and third-party funding at universities will change?

After all, I think there is now a consensus among science policy makers, organizations and scientists themselves that replacing basic funding for research with third-party funding has reached a threshold beyond which the dysfunctional side effects become too great.

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