Berlin as a Research Hub

A research metropolis with both history and future

Located right on the Berlin Wall up until 1989, it has now become the thriving heart of the city: the Brandenburg Gate.

Located right on the Berlin Wall up until 1989, it has now become the thriving heart of the city: the Brandenburg Gate.
Image Credit: Kai-Uwe Heinrich

Berlin is not only one of Europe’s largest hubs of research, but also among the most diverse. Students can choose from a wealth of subjects at the city’s more than 40 higher education institutions, including four universities, six universities of applied sciences, and three universities of the arts. The city is home to more than 70 research institutions not affiliated with academia, where researchers, scholars, and scientists work on a broad spectrum of topics, from measures to fight global epidemics and mathematical modeling of socioeconomic processes to the history of emotions.

The following are located in Berlin:

  • 5 Max Planck Institutes
  • 4 institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft
  • 2 research centers of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres (and one site of the German Aerospace Center, DLR)
  • 14 institutes of the Leibniz Association

and other well-known research institutions, such as the headquarters of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

All of them are involved in cooperation projects with the alliance partners, such as clusters or collaborative research centers. Without their specific expertise, the work of many successful research alliances would not be possible. In turn, researchers from the institutions not affiliated with the universities also find partners for research projects in the higher education institutions. In many cases, they also teach at one of the universities, thereby expanding the range of courses offered.

The most recent example of successful cooperation between the universities and research institutions not affiliated with academia is the German Internet Institute. With this project, a consortium based in Berlin won out over competitors from all over Germany. The project is being coordinated at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), with joint support from all four of Berlin’s universities – Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin University of the Arts, and Technische Universität Berlin – as well as the University of Potsdam and the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS).

The cyclotron, the central circular accelerator, at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, one of the many non-university research institutions in Berlin

The cyclotron, the central circular accelerator, at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, one of the many non-university research institutions in Berlin
Image Credit: HZB

A Berlin Original: The Einstein Foundation

Berlin’s scholars and scientists and institutions in academia and the research sector receive particular support from the Einstein Foundation Berlin. Its goal is to fund science and research of top international caliber in Berlin. For example, the Einstein Foundation supports the successful work done by Berlin’s graduate schools. Last year three of them were designated Einstein Graduate Schools, receiving a total of one million euros in funding for a three-year period.

In addition, the Einstein Visiting Fellows format is one way the foundation is helping to drive internationalization in Berlin as a research hub. It supports researchers of international repute in developing a working group there for a certain period. In this way, the foundation was able to attract researchers such as American political scientist Nancy Fraser and the Italian neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese for a several-year stay.

The Museum für Naturkunde, a Leibniz Institute, is among the non-university cooperation partners.

The Museum für Naturkunde, a Leibniz Institute, is among the non-university cooperation partners.
Image Credit: Antje Dittmann, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

A Destination for Researchers and Students from All over the World

Overall, Berlin’s universities and research institutions not affiliated with academia are among the most attractive locations for researchers from all over the world. According to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Ranking (2014), nearly 730 recipients of fellowships, scholarships, and grants chose one of the three universities as the place they would spend time abroad. Freie Universität is ranked number one in the list, followed by Humboldt-Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin came in eighth. The institutions not affiliated with academia that are most frequently visited by international visiting scholars and scientists include the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society, the German Archaeological Institute, and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The number of international students is on the rise as well: During the 2015/16 winter semester, there were more than 31,160 international students in total enrolled in programs in Berlin, more than two-thirds of them at Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin.

A statue was erected in front of Humboldt-Universität in 2014 to commemorate physicist Lise Meitner.

A statue was erected in front of Humboldt-Universität in 2014 to commemorate physicist Lise Meitner.
Image Credit: Silvio Schwartz

The City Where Walls Can Be Torn Down

Berlin also serves as an especially clear example of just how much even a research hub depends on its overall historical and political conditions. In the 19th century Berlin came to be an academic metropolis with international appeal. The city was home to luminaries such as historian Theodor Mommsen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902 for his multi-volume work on Roman history. Rudolf Virchow and Robert Koch both worked in Berlin, where they took new approaches in their research and made discoveries that advanced the field of medical science. And in November 1915, physicist Albert Einstein presented the outlines of his general theory of relativity at the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

This golden age came to an end with the expulsion of Jewish scholars and scientists – including Lise Meitner, who had discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin’s Dahlem district – by the Nazis, followed by World War II. What was left afterward was a divided center of research, with universities and research institutions split by the Berlin Wall.

When the Wall came down on November 9, 1989, new opportunities opened up not only for Berlin and German society at large, but also for the city’s academic and research institutions and the community of researchers and students. It was a radical change whose effects are still being felt today. For example, Charité – which, until 1989, had been a model institution for the East German regime – became the joint medical school of Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität.

The network of cooperative relationships among the academic, scientific, and research institutions in the city is growing ever closer – not least due to the shared successes that have been experienced in the Excellence Initiative. The sheer diversity of research and teaching activities in Berlin and the interaction between research based at the universities and outside them form a good basis for further shared projects.