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"We got the ball rolling"

Sabine Kunst, president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is the new spokesperson of the Berlin University Alliance. She succeeds Günter M. Ziegler, who had been in charge for two years.

Nov 13, 2020

The first change of speaker after two years and one year of Berlin University Alliance excellence funding – review and outlook

The first change of speaker after two years and one year of Berlin University Alliance excellence funding – review and outlook
Image Credit: Pixabay

The first change after two years at the helm of the Berlin University Alliance: On November 13, 2020, professor Günter M. Ziegler, president of Freie Universität Berlin, hands over the position of spokesperson of the Berlin University Alliance to the president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, professor Sabine Kunst. Since then, she has been prima inter pares, the first among equals on the so-called Board of Directors, the leadership committee of the Berlin University Alliance. Other members are professor Christian Thomsen, president of the Technische Universität Berlin, and Professor Heyo K. Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The position of spokesperson rotates every two years.

"In the past two years, the alliance has been built on a very solid basis. I am pleased that I can now continue to draw on this foundation," says Sabine Kunst. The corona pandemic is currently presenting universities with unprecedented challenges. However, collaboration within the alliance is particularly important, not in spite of the pandemic, but precisely because of it. "The current crisis shows how much we need cooperation across boundaries," the new spokesperson says. "This applies to research in particular. This is where the Berlin University Alliance is doing essential work."

Second Grand Challenge Initiative starts in December

In order to fund research on topics of particular social importance and current concerns, the alliance has chosen so-called Grand Challenge Initiatives: Grand challenges of the future that require collaboration between institutions and various disciplines. The first Grand Challenge Initiative is concerned with social cohesion; six research projects will be funded with more than seven million euros over a period of three years. The goal is to find out what holds our society together and how successful coexistence can be achieved in the future. The topics are very diverse: How can nutrition systems be socially inclusive? How do museums contribute to social cohesion? And what role does the law play in social cohesion?

Sabine Kunst, president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is the new spokesperson of the Berlin University Alliance.

Sabine Kunst, president of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is the new spokesperson of the Berlin University Alliance.
Image Credit: Matthias Heyde

In spring 2021, the call for proposals for the second Grand Challenge Initiative: Global Health – a topic that has attracted a great deal of attention, not least due to the corona pandemic - is expected to be launched. Global health also addresses other challenges that do not stop at national borders; the researchers will then examine questions of global health care or climate change, nutrition or the influence of city life on health. At the same time, the Berlin University Alliance strengthens the existing international links of the Berlin research landscape. A call for proposals with the National University of Singapore for the funding of joint research projects in the field of global health, which is currently running until mid-December, supports the knowledge exchange and enables the integration of international expertise.

Close cooperation with the University of Oxford was agreed upon as early as the end of 2017. After several calls for proposals and a photo competition for students of the partner institutions, the OX|BER Centre for Advanced Studies has now been founded. Within this framework, Berlin researchers, together with colleagues in Oxford, have proposed research projects lasting several years that deal with social cohesion – and also contribute to researching the Grand Challenge Initiative. The next call for proposals will focus on the topic of global health and will again take up the topics of the Grand Challenge Initiative and give researchers from Oxford and Berlin the opportunity to work together.

The alliance builds up a worldwide network

The strategic partnership between Berlin University Alliance and University of Melbourne is dedicated to establishing and expanding structures for joint graduate training. A special focus is on research projects that specifically involve (prospective) doctoral students and support the establishment of such structures – whether by establishing joint junior research groups, establishing international graduate programs or jointly supervising doctoral theses. PhD programs that literally span the globe are designed to bring the research landscapes of the Australian and European capitals closer together.

The current corona pandemic shows once again that excellent research is based on cross-border cooperation. The Berlin Center for Global Engagement (BCGE) is convinced that international collaboration cannot be limited to the circle of leading industrial nations, but must be truly global. As a prelude to its activities, the BCGE has set up a funding program to intensify the academic contacts of the Berlin research landscape with the Global South. 17 alliance projects have been funded under this program since September.

Involving students in research and venturing experiments in knowledge exchange

More than 100,000 students are enrolled at the four members of the Berlin Alliance. The new impetus for top-level research provided by the new funding opportunities should also benefit them – and not only indirectly by attracting bright minds to Berlin: Next year will see the launch of a program that links research and teaching even more closely by involving students early on in the research process. In the Student Research Opportunities Programx, in short StuROPx, students can pursue research questions in so-called X-tutorials, either independently or together with junior researchers in student research groups - and thereby gain their first real research experience. StuROPx also organizes the annual Berlin Conference for Student Research, where program participants can present their results and network.

Günter M. Ziegler is the president of Freie Universität Berlin.

Günter M. Ziegler is the president of Freie Universität Berlin.
Image Credit: Kay Herschelmann

One of the goals of the Berlin University Alliance is the exchange of knowledge with politics, culture, and society. Knowledge Exchange is a dialogue, because expertise is not only available at universities. The expertise and experience of each and every individual is also needed to solve social problems. How this knowledge can be incorporated into research processes and how communication between science, politics, business, arts, and citizens can be redesigned is being tested in the Berlin University Alliance's new funding line "Experimental Science Communication laboratories". It is a competition of ideas to find new ways to make research understandable, accessible, and tangible, to enter into an exchange with new target groups - and to use the full repertoire of classical and new media.

A new form of collaboration now also in a new legal form

The State of Berlin has created a collaboration platform for the alliance in the form of a corporation under public law – a step that the governing mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, has described as a "quantum leap" on the "common path to an integrated research environment". The new collaboration platform creates legal clarity and makes collaboration much easier, because previously, every joint project required new agreements and contracts between the four institutions. In addition, researchers who collaborate throughout Berlin within the framework of the Berlin University Alliance will in future be able to use laboratories of the other partner institutions, for example, more easily.

Günter M. Ziegler sees the Berlin University Alliance as being on the right track. "Bringing four such large institutions together is no easy undertaking, but we got the ball rolling and even the pandemic could not stop us. We are very proud of what has been achieved, which was only possible thanks to the close cooperation within our alliance," says the mathematician. "The integration of the Berlin research landscape is now entering a particularly exciting phase," adds Sabine Kunst. "Shaping this process is a challenge that I look forward to."