Cause for Celebration
Seven clusters for Berlin! The decision in the German Excellence Strategy was cause for celebration at the three major Berlin universities and Charité and demonstrates the high quality of research being done in Berlin in many disciplines.
Oct 11, 2018
“There was a huge amount of tension, and that’s why the positive news came as such a relief to us,” said Wolfgang Schäffner, a professor of cultural history of knowledge at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and spokesperson for the “Matters of Activity” cluster. Many scholars who were involved in the “marathon of the proposal phase,” as Schäffner puts it, probably felt the same way.
There was also relief and joy among the members of management and administration at the universities as well as among the city’s politicians. “Awesome,” tweeted Steffen Krach, Berlin’s Permanent Secretary for Higher Education and Research, immediately after the results were announced at the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Bonn, which together with the German Council of Science and Humanities organizes the federal and state governments’ competition. Together with Michael Müller, the city’s Governing Mayor and Senator for Higher Education and Research, Krach had taken part in the decisive meeting as a representative for the State of Berlin.
“We put together a great group of researchers who are really eager to do new things together,” said cluster spokesperson Wolfgang Schäffner. A number of people across various levels have been working on the cluster proposals – and just learned that the German Research Foundation approved a total of seven Clusters at all four institutions. So, people are celebrating not only at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in the central area Berlin-Mitte, but also at nearby Charité – Universitätsmedizin, as well as on the campus of Technische Universität Berlin in the district of Charlottenburg and at Freie Universität Berlin in southwestern Berlin.
Here, in the central offices of Freie Universität, members of the university had gathered at 4 p.m. to watch the German Research Foundation’s livestream – which was at first lacking the audio track. However, the silence did not last long, and the simultaneously published list of approved projects quickly made it clear that Berlin is one of the most successful research hubs in the German government’s Excellence Strategy.
Among the approved projects was Freie Universität’s proposal for “Temporal Communities - Doing Literature in a Global Perspective. A New Concept of Literature across the Boundaries of Periods, Cultures and Media.” Andrew James Johnston, a professor of English literature, and Anita Traninger, a professor of Romance languages and literatures, are its spokespersons.
“I am especially delighted that we have been successful with a cluster in literary studies,” said Anita Traninger. Only a few proposals from around the country are being funded in the humanities or social sciences.
The “Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS). Global Challenges for the Model of Liberal Democracy and Market Economy” cluster, also submitted by Freie Universität, is dedicated to a current topic. Tanja Börzel, a professor of political science at Freie Universität’s Otto Suhr Institute, and Michael Zürn of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), a professor of international relations at Freie Universität, are the spokespersons for this cluster within the social sciences.
After three years of intensive work, SCRIPTS’ success is a wonderful reward, said Michael Zürn. Tanja Börzel was in the U.S. when she heard the good news and later said, “We hugged each other across the ocean, so to speak.” Such transatlantic unanimity is, as Zürn remarked, “not self-evident,” especially in the current political situation, which the scholars at SCRIPTS intend to start dealing with in January 2019.
The longer period of funding will open up new opportunities.
The initial seven-year funding period for all clusters begins in January and can be extended for a further seven years if the follow-up proposal is successful. Each cluster can expect to receive several million euros annually. Over the next seven years, Berlin is to receive a total of 320 million euros in research funds. This longer funding period will open up new opportunities for research. In the German government’s previous excellence competition, the German Excellence Initiative, the clusters were only funded for a maximum of two five-year periods.
The clusters also demonstrate the networking already in place in Berlin; they are based on long-term cooperation: The “Math+” cluster was jointly proposed by the three major Berlin universities. Christof Schütte, the president of the Zuse Institute Berlin (ZIB) as well as a professor of mathematics at Freie Universität and one of three MATH+ spokespersons, was pleased with the success of the joint project by Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, and Technische Universität in cooperation with ZIB and the Weierstrass Institute. He said, “It is a clear signal that the three Berlin universities cooperate successfully in the field of mathematics at the highest level and that it is worth investing time and effort. Mathematicians are abstraction scientists who can contribute to progress in various fields of application, for example, in topics important for the future, such as sustainable energy supply, individualized medicine, or the analysis of social processes.”
The president of Freie Universität Günter M. Ziegler, a professor of mathematics, was also pleased with MATH+’s good performance. The cluster is after all also his “baby”: “Years of work have gone into it, as well as in the graduate school and the Matheon research center on which the new project is based. I am glad that I was able to turn everything over into good hands, when I took office as president of the university at the beginning of July.”
Professor Matthias Driess, one of the spokespersons for the “UniSysCat” Cluster of Excellence at Technische Universität Berlin, and his colleagues were following the decision together at the geodata booth, a measuring laboratory on the rooftop of Technische Universität’s old building. “We were all excited and confident at the same time – and rightly so, as it turned out,” reports the chemist. Now the scientists want to dive even deeper into their research and, as Driess says, “take a step closer toward sustainable chemistry. That’s wonderful.”
UniSysCat can build on ten years of work by UniCat, the previous cluster in the German Excellence Initiative. Individual catalytic reactions have already been well researched. The task now is to decipher reaction networks in chemical and biological catalysis in space and time so that they can then be controlled and, above all, simulated.
Dietmar Schmitz, spokesperson for the “NeuroCure” cluster at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, was also pleased with the renewed commitment – as NeuroCure was first approved eleven years ago in the first round of the German Excellence Initiative – and is looking forward to the “opportunity to further expand the various neuroscientific projects and thus further promote cooperation between many different disciplines.”
Professor Karl Max Einhäupl, chairman of the Executive Board at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, congratulated the members of the cluster and said the renewed funding decision demonstrates once again the international appeal of Berlin’s neurosciences. He said all the winning clusters made one thing perfectly clear for him: “Excellent research knows no institutional boundaries. That’s exactly why we’re working together in an alliance.”
“Distances between groups are short, we are extremely well networked, and every day lots of diverse, creative minds get enthusiastic about top-level research,” says Professor Christian Thomsen, the president of Technische Universität Berlin, describing the great advantages of Berlin as a center of education and research. One example of this is the “Science of Intelligence” cluster, which was proposed jointly by Technische Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Researchers from various fields such as computer science, robotics, psychology, and philosophy want to understand intelligence better.
And Professor Sabine Kunst, the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, was, like her colleagues, pleased about the “tailwind”: “The result inspires us. I’m optimistic that we will master the final sprint together.” The joint proposal as a university alliance must be submitted on December 10, 2018.
Above all, however, the result also shows how broadly top-level research is distributed throughout Berlin as a research hub, as Michael Müller, Berlin’s Governing Mayor and Senator for Higher Education and Research, also emphasized at a press conference on the results one day later. He said, “I am particularly pleased that we were able to convince the reviewers in so many fields, from the humanities and social sciences as well as the natural and technical sciences to the life sciences. This is one of Berlin’s greatest strengths, and it has also attracted a lot of attention among the Excellence Commission.”