“We want to make Berlin an even stronger center for research and learning.”

The heads of the three major Berlin universities and Charité spoke on rbb-Inforadio’s WissensWerte series on the opportunities of using national Excellence Competitions to support top-level research in Berlin.

May 31, 2018

On the podium at the 95th Treffpunkt WissensWerte (from right to left): rbb Science Editor Thomas Prinzler, Karl Max Einhäupl (Charité), Sabine Kunst (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) Christian Thomsen (Technische Universität Berlin), Peter-André Alt

On the podium at the 95th Treffpunkt WissensWerte (from right to left): rbb Science Editor Thomas Prinzler, Karl Max Einhäupl (Charité), Sabine Kunst (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) Christian Thomsen (Technische Universität Berlin), Peter-André Alt
Image Credit: Frederic Schweizer

Very few people outside of universities and research institutions have any idea how excited universities are about this coming autumn: as part of the national competition for research funding, the official decision on which applications for major projects are going to be initially funded for the period of seven years will be made on September 27. It will then also be clear which universities are eligible to apply under the Excellence Strategy for the Universities of Excellence award; the decision will be announced on July 19, 2019.

At the 95th Treffpunkt WissensWerte, a series of talks recorded by rbb-Inforadio in cooperation with the Technology Foundation Berlin, the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Professor Sabine Kunst, the president of Freie Universität Berlin, Professor Peter-André Alt, the president of Technische Universität Berlin, Professor Christian Thomsen, and the CEO of Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Professor Karl Max Einhäupl, spoke about their institutions’ application. The event was presented by rbb Science Editor Thomas Prinzler.

According to Thomas Prinzler, no other city or region has submitted as many applications as Berlin, and Berlin is the only place where three major universities, together with Charité, are pursuing an affiliated application. Radio presenter Thomas Prinzler wanted to know, “Why are the universities in Munich more skeptical? Why are there so many applications from Berlin, of all places? Were you following the motto, ‘a lot helps a lot’?” Under no circumstances, said Christian Thomsen, the president of Technische Universität Berlin. The large number of nine successful pre-selection proposals from different disciplines is made possible by the wide range of subjects offered by university research in Berlin. The initiatives have been developed “from the bottom up” by scientists and scholars, i.e., from the basis of the researchers, who often think multi-institutionally anyway. Peter-André Alt, the president of Freie Universität Berlin and, from August 2018, the president of the German Rectors’ Conference, also emphasized diversity as being a special quality of university research: “Only universities have subjects of this breadth.” Universities will thus be able to carry out innovative research in a unique way. This dynamism will also account for Berlin’s joint proposal.

Peter-André Alt, the president of Freie Universität Berlin, emphasized diversity as a special quality of innovative research at the three major Berlin universities and Charité.

Peter-André Alt, the president of Freie Universität Berlin, emphasized diversity as a special quality of innovative research at the three major Berlin universities and Charité.
Image Credit: Frederic Schweizer

“Only universities have subjects of this breadth.”
Peter-André Alt

“The quality of a university is reflected in its ability to renew itself,” said Karl Max Einhäupl, CEO of Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin. It is important for its scientists’ creativity to constantly develop new fields of research. The applications deal with important topics whose research should be implemented through other funding, even if not all nine projects are approved in September. As a medical school of two universities with Excellence status, one could say that Charité is “doubly excellent,” said Einhäupl. Freie Universität Berlin received an award in the first round of the Excellence competition in 2007 – called the Excellence Initiative in those days – and defended its title in 2012; Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin won the award in 2012.

Chief executive officer of Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Karl Max Einhäupl in conversation with rbb Science Editor Thomas Prinzler

Chief executive officer of Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Karl Max Einhäupl in conversation with rbb Science Editor Thomas Prinzler
Image Credit: Frederic Schweizer

“The quality of a university is reflected in its ability to renew itself.”
Karl Max Einhäupl

“What effect did the Excellence Initiative have on the universities,” asked Thomas Prinzler. Sabine Kunst and Peter-André Alt, the heads of the two Berlin universities of excellence, drew a positive balance. The additional funds enabled them to pursue new staff development and to expand their international activities, said Alt. “We multiplied the money wisely.” Sabine Kunst emphasized that this funding created freedom for scientists and scholars. The Excellence Initiative thus made an enormous contribution to the development of the institutions’ profiles.

Over the past decade, said Peter-André Alt, the reputation of universities and research in Berlin has considerably improved overall. He notices greater appreciation on the part of policy makers: after all, science and research are of great importance for the city, as universities create jobs and opportunities to encourage integration, for example, by offering courses to refugees.

Sabine Kunst, the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, explains what the funding from the Excellence Initiative at her university was able to achieve.

Sabine Kunst, the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, explains what the funding from the Excellence Initiative at her university was able to achieve.
Image Credit: Frederic Schweizer

“Berlin, the center of science and research, does not end at the city limits.”
Sabine Kunst

As evident in international appointments, Karl Max Einhäupl reported, the competition has also contributed to the international visibility of Berlin’s universities. And Sabine Kunst emphasized that “the gain in reputation far exceeded any monetary profit.”

In the small broadcasting hall of the Rundfunkhaus on Masurenallee, the four guests emphasized that the Excellence competition also benefits the whole of Berlin as a hub of science and research. Even if, for formal reasons, a consortium of only three institutions could apply, there is close cooperation with universities in Brandenburg, such as Universität Potsdam. “Berlin, the center of science and research, does not end at the city limits,” said Sabine Kunst.

The results in the competition’s so-called second funding line are particularly important for the institutions because while the universities in the Excellence Initiative only received the award for a limited period, under the new competition, they will now become “Universities of Excellence” for seven years and – with a positive interim assessment – for up to 14 years. As such, there is a lot at stake for the institutions in Berlin: even if the competition no longer causes such a stir in the media – “we are in research and not in football,” said Peter-André Alt – the interest of the “university community” in cooperating with Berlin is great.

The president of Technische Universität Berlin, Christian Thomsen, on the podium of the 95th WissensWerte

The president of Technische Universität Berlin, Christian Thomsen, on the podium of the 95th WissensWerte
Image Credit: Frederic Schweizer

“We want to make a difference in socially relevant issues – perhaps even more so than before.” Christian Thomsen

The management of the four institutions have set themselves the future goal of reaching out more into the city and gaining even more international visibility. Christian Thomsen explained that they also want to jointly promote junior researchers and be an attractive target for scholars and scientists from all over the world. “We want to make a difference in socially relevant issues – perhaps even more so than before.” Completely new potentials can be developed by overcoming institutional boundaries,” said Peter-André Alt. “We want to make Berlin an even stronger center of science and research.”