“We are very proud!”

Berlin University Alliance Wins Prestigious German “Excellence” Status – An Interview with the Alliance’s Spokesperson, Professor Günter M. Ziegler

Jul 20, 2019

Joy after the good news: Sabine Kunst, President of Humboldt-Universität, Günter M. Ziegler, President Freie Universität (l.), Karl Max Einhäupl, CEO Charité (m.) und Christian Thomsen, President of Technische Universität (r.).

Joy after the good news: Sabine Kunst, President of Humboldt-Universität, Günter M. Ziegler, President Freie Universität (l.), Karl Max Einhäupl, CEO Charité (m.) und Christian Thomsen, President of Technische Universität (r.).
Image Credit: Günter M. Ziegler

At precisely 4:10 p.m. the long wait finally came to an end: German Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek announced the names of the 11 universities and university consortia winning German “excellence” status – among them was the Berlin consortium, consisting of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Technische Universität Berlin along with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. Members of all four institutions and other special guests gathered in the hundreds on Friday, July 19, at the Urania building in Berlin to watch the live-stream of the press conference in Bonn. It was a joyous occasion for all. The partner institutions made a bold decision when they chose to submit a proposal as a consortium – the only consortium proposal that was successful in the competitive selection process. It was a decision both to strengthen their collaborative efforts, which have already given way to numerous projects in diverse areas of research, by establishing an institutional framework, as well as to work together as a driving force for Berlin as a research hub. As of November 2019, the Berlin Alliance will receive around 30 million euros annually to pursue its goals – around 24 million euros by the state and additional 6 million by the Berlin Senate. An interview with Professor Günter M. Ziegler, the president of Freie Universität Berlin and spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance.

Professor Ziegler, the Berlin University Alliance is now officially “excellent.” What does that mean for the Berlin Alliance?

Ziegler: This is an incredible honor and an acknowledgment of all that the four partner institutions have already achieved. It is also a vote of confidence in the Berlin Alliance’s potential. We are very proud! With this success we now have a strong wind in our sails. There are many people responsible for getting us this far: Researchers, students, and doctoral candidates, administrative staff, along with the heads of the universities and Charité. I would like to express again our gratitude to them all. Without their extraordinary dedication and input, the Berlin University Alliance would not have been possible.

What does this success mean for Berlin as a research hub?

Ziegler: In the last few years, it has become apparent in Berlin that science and research are a source of great potential for our future. Research is not just something for Berlin to be proud of. It is a driving force behind the economy, industry, and the city’s growth. The Berlin University Alliance plans to further support the development of Berlin as a place with a closely-knit research community and contribute to making it even more visible on an international level. These are important goals in terms of research, and they will benefit the city of Berlin as well.

The name of the consortium proposal is “Crossing Boundaries for an Integrated Research Environment” What boundaries are the four members hoping to cross?

Ziegler: All different kinds: First of all – and perhaps the most obvious – we are talking about boundaries between institutions, between the three universities and Charité – boundaries that make it difficult, for example, to organize joint degree programs or to carry out research projects together. We are also interested in breaking down boundaries between disciplines and between theoretical and applied research. And we are looking beyond the walls of our own institutions at ways to connect with non-university research institutes as well as ways to bring scholarship and research into Berlin city life.

Professor Günter M. Ziegler, the president of Freie Universität Berlin and spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance.

Professor Günter M. Ziegler, the president of Freie Universität Berlin and spokesperson for the Berlin University Alliance.
Image Credit: Patricia Kalisch

Which projects are at the top of your priority list?

Ziegler: The Berlin University Alliance wants to address issues with global relevance for our future. We have decided on “social cohesion” as the first topic we want to attack. In addition to supporting interdisciplinary research and encouraging collaboration between researchers from different institutions, we also will engage with other social actors in Berlin. The idea is to do more than just share our knowledge with them. We want to foster a real exchange of ideas between academic research and society.

These overarching topics provide a shared focus for the consortium, but what other distinguishing features will the shared research environment have that you plan to create?

Ziegler: We want to optimize how we use Berlin’s great research infrastructure and make it easier for researchers from our partner institutions to share resources, from large-scale equipment and computer technology to scientific collections and libraries. Berlin is a goldmine in this respect. We also want to tackle the difficult issue of the quality standards in research. What drives researchers? What factors contribute to misguided practices, such as publishing redundant studies? We need to carefully study the incentives to encourage people to conduct research with even more transparency and produce results that are more valuable and that can be better verified. We already have several outstanding Berlin initiatives that provide a foundation for us to build on, for example, the QUEST Center at Charité, which promotes quality in biomedical research. With this basis, we can start a new chapter together: We have a responsibility that extends beyond the research produced here in Berlin. The Berlin University Alliance sees itself as an essential part of the international world of research in the twenty-first century.

German “Excellence” status comes with an annual budget of 24 million euros. In addition, the Berlin University Alliance will receive six million euros a year in financial support from the Berlin Senate. How will these funds be distributed between the four members?

Ziegler: This funding is going to allow us to get a lot done. The Berlin University Alliance is not a marriage of convenience designed for individual profits. The money will be directed to where it makes the most sense. When we focus our efforts on the topic of “social cohesion,” there will be a call for proposals from researchers at the member institutions. Funds will then be awarded based on the success of the applicants and whoever submits the best project proposal with clear and strong social relevance.

In the early stages, many university members expressed concern that the four partners would lose their unique strengths in the consortium. Do you share that concern?

Ziegler: No, on the contrary. The Berlin University Alliance draws its strength from the differences between its partner institutions. Another important task we plan to work on over the next few years is articulating the individual profiles of the four members. Each has its own style, its own agenda, and its own research fields, which it then uses to set things in motion. It wouldn’t help anyone if we were to all melt together into an undefinable mass. It is precisely our differences that make it such a good partnership.

How did you celebrate the good news?

Ziegler: We had a big party in the Urania building in Berlin. There was a huge crowd with people from all four institutions, plus other partners and guests from the Berlin community. For me it was great to see right before my eyes just how many people are invested in supporting the Berlin University Alliance.

Nina Diezemann conducted the interview.