Excellent for Berlin - Insights from Politics into the Topics of the Seven Clusters of Excellence: Berlin Senator for Science, Health and Care, Dr. Ina Czyborra visits the Berlin Clusters of Excellence
They are the driving forces in the Berlin research landscape and stand for research at the highest level: In 2019, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin successfully applied for funding for seven Clusters of Excellence in the Excellence Strategy research competition. This puts Berlin at the forefront of the research hubs in Germany.
BUA invites Senator
The Clusters of Excellence not only strengthen top-level research in Berlin, but at the same time have an impact far beyond the boundaries of the universities. They are the nucleus for networks with cultural, political and social institutions and international partners, promote Berlin as a center of commerce and industry, seek exchange with urban society, and develop suitable communication services for this purpose. "The Clusters of Excellence in Berlin are the driving force for the integrated research environment in our city, and thus also for the Berlin University Alliance. The seven Clusters of Excellence are a great opportunity for Berlin's innovative capacity and future viability, as they actively devise approaches to solving the major challenges of our time," explains the BUA spokesperson and president of Technische Universität Berlin, Geraldine Rauch.
The fact that the Clusters of Excellence have a lot to offer in and for Berlin is currently confirmed first-hand by the Berlin Senator for Science, Health and Care, Dr. Ina Czyborra. At the invitation of the BUA management, she visits all seven Clusters, informs herself about their research content, and exchanges ideas with researchers about what has already been achieved, what plans there are for the future, and what is needed so that research in Berlin can remain excellent. "The seven Clusters of Excellence in Berlin live and breathe the active, transdisciplinary collaboration, which is why they are so important to the BUA. When I visit the BUA Clusters, I experience all of this: transdisciplinary collaboration, the search for solutions to the big problems we face today and in the future. The Clusters bring together people from a wide range of research disciplines and institutions who have not previously worked together. It is in their interaction, their interconnection, and at the interfaces that something utterly new is created." says Ina Czyborra.
Berlin as a Location for Green Chemistry
One of her visits took her to „BasCat“ – the joint lab of the Cluster of Excellence "Unifying Systems in Catalysis (UniSysCat)" and the industrial partner BASF in early October. Here, energy-efficient catalytic technologies, sustainable value chains, and data-driven, innovative methods of catalysis research are developed under state-of-the-art and realistic conditions.
Prof. Arne Thomas, the spokesperson for UniSysCat, says: "Berlin will become a future location for green chemistry." The ideas for this emerge from the basic research of the Cluster, in which researchers from chemistry, biology, engineering, and physics collaborate on the major global challenges of the chemical industry. In the future, this will have to stand on sustainable foundations and do without fossil raw materials and energy. This requires new production methods and processes, which the researchers develop together, focusing primarily on catalysis.
Clusters Provide Impetus for Startups
The path from the idea to application and finally to establishing a company can be exceedingly difficult, especially in chemistry, Arne Thomas knows: "The necessary equipment such as microscopes and other measuring instruments or laboratory equipment is very expensive." With the „Chemical Invention Factory“, the Cluster of Excellence is creating an "ecosystem" for startups in the field of green chemistry, which provides exactly this basic equipment and at the same time establishes close contact with research partners. "We have expertise from many different departments and from all four of BUA's partner institutions. This excellent networking is an enormous advantage for Berlin as a location," says Arne Thomas, who underlines how research in the Cluster of Excellence also lays the basis for economic impetus and thus reflects the successful knowledge transfer from the Clusters. So far, there is no major chemical production in Berlin. With smaller, decentralized plants based on regenerative raw materials and renewable energy, this could change in the future. Arne Thomas sees the central theme for a second funding phase from 2026 onwards as advancing the circular economy in the chemical industry. Other themes include the conversion of CO2 into high-quality products, the production and use of green hydrogen and the recycling of plastic via catalysis.
New Interfaces and New Career Paths
The Cluster of Excellence "Matters of Activity", bringing together the humanities, natural sciences, and design sciences, is an example of interdisciplinarity in action. This is also reflected in the Cluster's spokespersons, who are the design and cultural scientist Prof. Claudia Mareis, the art historian Prof. Horst Bredekamp, the physicist Prof. Peter Fratzl, and the knowledge and media historian Prof. Wolfgang Schäffner. Under the overarching theme of active materials, the Cluster brings together researchers who normally have little in common in joint projects: for example, a designer works and collaborates in the microbiology lab, and a digital media expert conducts research with physicians. This leads to unique results, but also to unusual career paths: "The Cluster is currently facing the challenge of making a hybrid doctorate possible in Berlin," explains Cluster-spokesperson Claudia Mareis. "This has been difficult so far, but it could highlight and strengthen the uniqueness of the Berlin research environment in the future."
"Matters of Activity" forges close links not only between different research disciplines, but also between the scientific community and the urban society. In transdisciplinary projects, researchers and stakeholders from urban society collaborate in developing exhibitions, workshops, and innovative formats of science communication such as the BUA-funded Experimental laboratory „CollActive Materials“, in which society and science speculate about possible futures, for example around the topic of air.
In order to continue attracting the brightest minds to Berlin, the Cluster wants Berlin's politicians to be even more courageous in the future in supporting extraordinary and sometimes risky research projects – also with a view to a possible further funding phase, for which the Clusters must apply next August. Sometimes, it's the new, unfamiliar paths that lead to surprising solutions to current problems. "Clusters of Excellence are also experimental spaces. And that requires additional financial resources", emphasizes Cluster-spokesperson Wolfgang Schäffner.
The Seven Berlin Clusters of Excellence at a Glance
Matters of Activity
What can we learn from nature and traditional cultural techniques? How can we explore and influence more sustainable, resilient, and equitable ways of making, producing, and living by targeting the intrinsic activity of materials? Researchers from more than 40 disciplines are working on this in the Matters of Activity Cluster of Excellence. Biology and technology, humanities and materials, nature, and culture are interacting in new ways to create surprising solutions.
Transforming the World through Mathematics – that is the slogan of the Cluster of Excellence Berlin Mathematics Research Center (Math+). It has set itself the goal of exploring and further developing new approaches in application-oriented mathematics. The focus is on mathematical principles for the use of ever larger amounts of data in the life and materials sciences, in energy and network research, and in the humanities and social sciences.
To better understand, diagnose, and develop therapeutic approaches to the disease mechanisms of neurological and psychiatric diseases – these are the goals of the NeuroCure Cluster of Excellence. To ensure that the insights gained can be quickly applied in clinical practice and thus help patients, the Cluster has set up its own clinical research center – the Neuroscience Clinical Research Center (NCRC) – within Charité – Universitätsmedizin. This is where basic and clinical research collaborate closely.
Science of Intelligence
What is intelligence? Researchers from psychology, neurology, behavioral sciences, computer science, and robotics in the Cluster of Excellence Science of Intelligence (SCIoI) examine this question from different perspectives. There are still large gaps in our knowledge of the fundamental laws and principles that underlie artificial, individual, or collective intelligence. To close these gaps, researchers are collaborating across disciplines, observing and analyzing intelligent behavior, and developing artificially intelligent (AI) systems themselves.
The debates about the liberal order from a historical, global and comparative perspective are at the center of the Cluster of Excellence Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS). Freedom, equality, justice, progress, and tolerance are the basic modules of the liberal script. However, societies with liberal constitutional structures are under pressure worldwide. Scholars and scientists address the question of why this is the case despite all the achievements, where the causes of current conflicts lie and how they differ from previous crises. What consequences are there for democracy and the global challenges of the 21st century?
The Cluster of Excellence Temporal Communities – Doing Literature in a Global Perspective is working on a global understanding of literature. To this end, the researchers aim to transcend traditional linguistic and cultural boundaries and explore whether literature is an appropriate mean of creating community. Literature transcends space and time – sometimes across millennia –, forms complex networks and is in constant exchange with other art forms, media, institutions, and society. In order to work together on research questions, the Cluster maintains intensive cooperation with the art and literary scene in Berlin.
More than 300 researchers from four universities and four research institutions are working in the Cluster of Excellence Unifying Systems in Catalysis (UniSysCat) to revolutionize catalysis. Their findings can provide solutions to many pressing global problems: Climate-neutral fuels, sustainable production methods in the chemical industry, and the recycling of plastics are all enabled by catalytic processes. To this end, researchers from the fields of chemistry, biology, engineering, and physics work closely together.