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“A go-it-alone approach to research will no longer work to solve the problems of the 21st century.”

Three Berlin universities along with Charité want to work together in the Excellence Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges / An interview with the heads of the involved institutions.

Feb 21, 2018

(clockwise) Chief executive officer of Charité-Universitätsmedizin Karl Max Einhäupl, the president of Humboldt-Universität Sabine Kunst, the president of Technische Univsität Christian Thomsen, and the president of Freie Universität Peter-André Alt

(clockwise) Chief executive officer of Charité-Universitätsmedizin Karl Max Einhäupl, the president of Humboldt-Universität Sabine Kunst, the president of Technische Univsität Christian Thomsen, and the president of Freie Universität Peter-André Alt
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

The idea is becoming reality: Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität along with their jointly operated medical school, Charité, and Technische Universität are now planning to enter the German government’s new Excellence Strategy competition together. On February 21 2018, they officially submitted a joint letter of intent in the Universities of Excellence funding line. In an interview, the president of Humboldt-Universität, Professor Sabine Kunst, the president of Freie Universität, Professor Peter-André Alt, the president of Technische Universität, Professor Christian Thomsen, and the chief executive officer of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Professor Karl Max Einhäupl, explained what moved them to apply together and what the next steps will be.

Four institutions are submitting a joint proposal in a nationwide research competition – that is a novelty on this scale. What challenges are involved?

Peter-André Alt: Each of the four institutions involved has its own structure, history, and institutional identity. We plan to maintain these individual profiles. We are forging an alliance, not a merger. For a long time, especially in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, strong competitive thinking dictated our dealings. In the meantime, mutual trust has grown through many successful joint research projects. On the basis of better relationships evolving out of working together more and more, we now want to define common goals for the future and implement them through appropriate organizational processes. Of course, there is no lack of challenges: In the day-to-day work, the necessary coordination processes are complex and time-consuming. We had to learn to develop a common perspective for our plans, and we were faced with the task of agreeing on the best, most promising pathways for implementation. That has worked very well in the past one and a half years, and this achievement can be credited to work by individuals at all of the participating institutions.

"We succeeded in developing common perspectives and pathways."
Peter-André Alt

Why does it pay to undertake these efforts?

Karl Max Einhäupl: Many reasons speak in favor of this alliance: There is no other location in Germany where three universities and a university hospital of this size, reputation, and innovative power are in such close proximity to each other. For more than ten years, scholars and scientists at our institutions have been working within a culture of cooperation, which is the basis for internationally visible research projects. Today, more than ever, excellence is not based on institutional borders, and a go-it-alone approach to research will no longer work to solve the problems of the 21st century.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Einhäupl: We are faced with creating optimal conditions for research in Berlin and promoting them with a culture of cooperation. With our alliance, we aim to develop platforms and funding instruments that will strengthen Berlin as a location for research and provide our scholars and scientists with the best possible conditions for teaching and doing research here. I am convinced that our alliance will lead to a new quality of collaboration among researchers at our institutions and will make substantial contributions to solving academic and societal challenges and issues.

What is the next step, now that the letter of intent has been submitted?

Christian Thomsen: Now it is important to create the conditions for a successful application and to get as many as possible of our nine proposed clusters approved. All of those responsible for submitting full proposals for clusters have done outstanding work in a very short time. They deserve our thanks. But the work is not over. Dates are scheduled from April through June for appraisals of these projects. During that same period many other members of our four institutions will be working on our proposal for the Universities of Excellence funding line. On September 27, 2018, we will then know which cluster projects have been approved for funding and whether Berlin has enough clusters to be allowed to submit a full proposal in the Universities of Excellence funding line. If that is the case, we will submit our joint proposal on December 10, 2018. Next year there will be an on-site assessment, and the decision will be announced on July 19, 2019. Then we will know if we can fully implement our plans.

And if not?

Thomsen: That of course would be a shame, but we are not expecting that to happen. In any regard, we will proceed with our successful collaboration and continue to work together in more areas.

"The collaborative work brings us closer together."
Sabine Kunst

How is the work on such a large and complex project organized? The four institutions must enter uncharted territory.

Sabine Kunst: Since making their decision to apply as an alliance, members of Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, Technische Universität, and Charité have been meeting regularly in various working groups to prepare the joint application for the Universities of Excellence funding line. The process is being coordinated by a strategy working group. Of course, scholars and scientists as well as experts from the administrations of all of our institutions are involved in the process at various decisive points. In another group we are working closely together in terms of internal and external communication.

The university leaders meet regularly to discuss the conceptual preparatory work from the various institutions and on this basis, to make decisions about the next steps. We regularly inform the advisory boards and committees of our separate institutions about the current status.

That sounds like a lot of work.

Kunst: Yes, this process is very time-consuming, as different interests and expectations need to be balanced in order to achieve a comprehensive commitment to the joint project of submitting an application as an alliance. Of course, we knew that this would be the case when we started. The involved researchers as well as members of the university administrations have to cope with an enormous amount of extra work. In spite of these immense efforts that we all have, we see that the collaborative work brings us closer together and facilitates the maturing of ideas. We are certain that our work will advance Berlin as a research hub and also bring significant advantages to all four of the participating institutions.

"We highly appreciate the enormous commitment of everyone involved."
Christian Thomsen

How do you keep the members of the fours institutions who are not directly involved with the application process informed?

Thomsen: Last year we held information events at each of the four institutions. At each of these campus dialogues, my colleagues from Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, Charité, and I all participated in a panel discussion and later answered questions from members of the audience. Anyone who is interested can get information from the website or get regular updates via the Twitter channel of the Berlin University Alliance. At important stages of the way, we send out newsletters to the members of the four institutions. For all of us – and I am also speaking on behalf of the other presidents and Professor Einhäupl – it is important not only to inform the other members of the institutions, but also to convey our appreciation to everyone involved for their enormous commitment. Their extraordinary dedication and hard work cannot be taken for granted and represent a tangible added value for the institutions – regardless of the ultimate success of the individual initiatives.