August 31, 2010
The Dark Side of German Science Funding
In the face of potential drastic cuts to UK higher education and research budgets, several bloggers have sung the praises of Germany’s decision to increase science funding – a prescient investment in the future. UK scientists quite rightly fear that massive cuts will lead to a lost generation of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who can’t see a future in research.
But that does not mean the UK will be the only nation with a lost generation. Welcome to the club, Germany.
As all working scientists know, research has two pillars, permanent academic staff at higher education institutions and independent research institutes, and contract researchers who often apply for their own funding. Senior contract researchers can be a great boost to an institute’s research profile, as the RAE results of my academic home, the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, amply demonstrate. Both pillars rely on senior researchers being able to find long-term work.
In Germany, this is so fraught with difficulties that a long-term academic career is next to impossible. Let’s forget about the fact that assistant professors and professors at polytechnics in Germany earn less than teachers, let’s just concentrate on the hurdles to be overcome until one snags one of those permanent positions.
De facto, almost all permanent positions are full professorships – not lectureships, not associate professor positions. Lower permanent positions exist in the patriarchal pecking order of German academia, but they are the first to be cut in the latest round of savings when the office holder retires.
In order to become a professor, German researchers typically have to write a second “book” or large thesis called the Habilitation, where they show mastery of a field of inquiry. Yes, this Habilitation is in addition to a PhD. Some researchers managed to become a full professor by showing evidence of equivalent achievements, but this is relatively rare. The disadvantages of this system are obvious – a long time to qualification for a permanent position, and an equally long dependence on academic supervisors. Needless to say, this has highly predictable effects on the number of women in the upper echelons of German academia.
In the early Noughties, a reform was attempted. Juniorprofessuren were introduced. They were supposed to be modelled on the US model of assistant professor positions. Junior professors are in post for a maximum for 6-7 years, depending on the Bundesland. After the first three years, their performance is evaluated, and they can be made redundant if it is not satisfactory. After the end of their time in post, there is a final performance evaluation.
Now, let’s stop to think. What would sane people do?
- They would ensure that capable junior professors are promoted to a permanent post
- They would ensure that junior professorships or similar positions are the main route to a full professorship, obviating the need for a Habilitation
- They would ensure a clear career path for young researchers by constantly creating junior professor positions until the new pathway has become self-sustaining
What did Germany do?
- Only EIGHT PERCENT of junior professorships are full tenure track positions; for a further 18%, successful junior professors may apply for another position at the same university after their contract has ended.
- Many disciplines, in particular law, are highly suspicious of that newfangled nonsense, so many junior professors write a Habilitation on the side, while people who follow the traditional path of the Habilitation earn significantly less than they used to, because the posts which were dedicated to them have been abolished and replaced with cheaper temporary positions, if at all.
- The number of junior professorships needed to sustainably replace the greybeards who are forced into retirement at 65 is 6000. Right now, there are 800 junior professorships in the whole of Germany. To add insult to injury, junior professors whose posts were created after 2004 often have to make do without start-up funds and research assistants, because that’s when the special funding for these positions ran out.
Frankly, I don’t know what the thousands of doctoral students will make of this who are now busy doing all the work on the shiny new research grants. They will be able to spend a maximum of twelve years on uni-funded posts – this time includes their doctoral research. Exemptions can be granted for researchers who are self-funding, but I am not sure about the details. It would be great if an inhabitant of Mordor somebody who currently works at a German university could provide some more information. But somehow, I don’t see a future in German academia for all these researchers. Rather, I see a mass exodus of the best and the brightest to places where you don’t have to jump through a multitude of arcane hoops to have a future in science.
Like the UK.