1 Wilhelm Krull Europe's New Strive for Excellence in Research and ...


1 Wilhelm Krull Europe's New Strive for Excellence in Research and ...

Wilhelm Krull

Europe’s New Strive for Excellence in Research and Innovation: Adapting to the U.S.

Model? *

Dear Gary,

Distinguished Colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for hosting this festive dinner in my honour, and for granting me the

privilege of an honorary professorship at your university. It is indeed a great privilege and a

pleasure to be associated with your magnificent institution, and to address you on this occasion

by speaking about a topic which is close to the heart of research policy-makers as well

as university leaders in the United States and Europe alike: the strive for excellence in research

and innovation. It is in several respects a challenging topic, and the challenges begin

with defining some of the keywords in the title of my talk

1. Definitions, Criteria, and Comparisons

Unlike the United States (at least, as often seen from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean),

Europe is neither geographically nor politically a clearly defined entity. For some it appears to

be nothing but an appendix to the land masses of Asia, for others it is all too often confined

to the borders of the European Union (EU). For tonight I would like to suggest that we conceive

of Europe as an open space which can only be filled by intellectual and political endeavours

in view of the common cultural heritage. Perhaps, we should follow the advice of

the Hungarian writer and former President of the Berlin Academy of Arts, György Konrád,

who once recommended to look at Europe as a “work in progress” (which it surely is with

respect to its current strive for excellence).

In recent years, the term ‘excellence’ has become extremely popular in Europe. There is

hardly any award being made or centre established, there are almost no academic institu-

* Inaugural Lecture and Dinner Speech at Washington University, St. Louis, on 13 February 2013.


tions nor government programmes left that do not link themselves to the notion of ‘excellence’.

Its inflationary use has already triggered several attempts to supercede being considered

‘excellent’ by calling something ‘mega-excellent’ or by replacing ‘excellent’ through ‘outstanding’.

That even being labeled ‘outstanding’ is not enough has recently been demonstrated

by Council Members of the European Research Council (ERC). For them successful

applicants nowadays have to be ‘truly outstanding’.

As far as the words ‘research’ andinnovation’ are concerned, we more and more find a high

degree of confusion, last but not least in view of the complexities involved but perhaps also

with respect to the fact that not everyone seems to understand the rules of the game (as in

the following cartoon, slide 3). In particular the word ‘innovation’ has turned into “one of the

most overused, underdefined terms in organisational life.” (Paul C. Light: Sustaining Innovation.

Creating Nonprofit and Government Organisations that Innovate Naturally, San Francisco

1998, p. XIV.) At least in a European context, its meaning stretches from ‘innovative science’

in the sense of finding new insights or achieving breakthroughs in basic research via

inventing something new, and thus enabling product or process innovations, all the way

through to the latest catchword in EU research policy-making ‘the Innovation Union’ and its

“Horizon 2020”. The rationale behind the ever widening use of the term ‘innovation’ clearly

has to do with rising concerns, also in the United States, that our capacity to innovate radically

and intensely seems to be dwindling. “The Economist” (in its January 12, 2013 edition)

reported that even in Silicon Valley people think “the place is stagnant, and that the rate of

innovation has been slackening for decades.” (ibid, p. 19) As economic growth is closely related

to inventions and improvements, “the Economist” seems to be deeply worried about a

lack of new ideas. In a nutshell this is wonderfully represented on the coverpage of the same

issue addressing the question “Will we ever invent anything this useful again?” Probably the

most irritating part of the title of my speech is the last bit: “Adapting to the U.S. Model?”. It

seems to suggest that there is a common denominator, or at least a high degree of coherence

of something like a U.S. higher education system which may serve as a model for others.

Well, I think all of you know that there is no such thing like a U.S. system of higher education.

Given the wide array of some 4,000 quite different institutions like community colleges,

liberal arts colleges, land grant colleges and universities, state supported and private universities

etc., it could indeed turn out to be an impossible task to establish something like a

U.S. model. But in European debates about excellence in higher education and research the

U.S. model addressed focuses on just one, albeit extremely important feature: the great

American research universities, deeply admired for their cultures of creativity, their ability to

produce transformative knowledge, and their widely acknowledged reputation. Although we

often do not know what kind of measurements and assessment methods can be appropriate-


ly applied, it is almost needless to say that the outstanding performance of American re-

search universities is also confirmed in all major rankings of world universities. With 7 out of

10 in the THES Ranking 2010/11, and 8 out of the top ten, 17 out of 20, 57 of the top 100 in

the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities 2011, the leading position of the U.S. top-notch

institutions remains largely unchallenged. It is only when we look at the top 500 that Europe

with 204 universities surpasses the Americas with 184 top-ranked institutions. The fact that

apart from a few British and Swiss universities hardly any European universities are to be

found among the top 50 in the world but more than 200 among the top 500 reflects the approach

taken in most European countries throughout the second half of the 20 th Century.

With a predominant focus on broad-based and regionally distributed support for a fairly large

number of higher education institutions offering high quality teaching and research, resources

were more evenly distributed instead of giving priority to a few research universities

enjoying international visibility.

If we take a closer look at German universities in international rankings, it probably does not

come as a surprise to you that the University of Göttingen as well as the two Munich universities

and the University of Heidelberg do rank very highly in almost all rankings. What may

surprise you, however, is the fact that neither Göttingen nor Bonn, Freiburg, and Erlangen

were ultimately successful in the German Initiative on Excellence (to which I will return in a

few minutes).

But rankings are not only about measuring outputs and acknowledging past achievements.

Marketing and show effects at times seem to be just as important. At least in the following

cartoon where the advice clearly is: “Dear colleague, you will never get to the top of the ranking

without a certain sex appeal!” Although one could have serious doubts whether in this

case the bathing suit is really appealing to anyone.

2. Common Objectives – Different Approaches

In many respects, Europe’s universities and research institutions compare favourably with

the rest of the world: The European Union is by far the biggest scientific space on earth. The

largest number of academics and also postgraduate students are trained there. European

universities confer almost twice as many doctorates as those of the United States. Europe

also produces the highest number of scientific publications. But if we look at Europe’s share

of the world’s most frequently cited publications, and above all the numbers of benchmark

science awards, including the Nobel Prizes, Fields medals, etc. significant weaknesses

emerge: Basically, too few fundamental breakthroughs are made in Europe. In the last few


decades a far greater number of Nobel Prizes and similarly prestigious international awards

have gone to scientists working in the United States. Europe’s ability to market basic innova-

tions is also comparatively underdeveloped, a situation that has not changed significantly

with the recently increased focus on linkages between research and industry, or the Nobel

Prizes awarded to European scientists over the last five years.

Already during the first decade of the 21 st Century research policy advisors across Europe

realized that it is essential to provide first-class conditions for teaching, research and innovation

if Europe does not want to be left behind by the world’s leading research systems. The

speed of change in the international division of labour from a world of hands, tools, and machines

to one of brains, computers, and laboratories must be matched by the pace of development

in the conditions to be met by internationally competitive universities and research

institutes. In almost all EU member states organisational structures were changed and new

forms of competition were launched in order to increase competitiveness of the respective

higher education and research institutions. An additional objective also was to trigger reform

measures which otherwise would hardly have been possible and certainly not within a few

years. But as we know from other walks of life, setting the objectives and reaching them may

be two quite different things. In particular, when all too ambitious objectives are set, the unintended

effects may prevail at the end. Like Napoleon in this cartoon, a critical and detached

view at objectives such as Moscow, Trafalgar, and Waterloo may in the end have the effect

that one will have to discover St. Helena.

This is not to say that the French attempts to shake up their higher education and research

system did not reach their objectives. In fact, I think it is still too early to judge whether they

had the intended effects or produced a number of side effects. When I was involved last year

in a panel evaluating the performance of the French National Research Agency (ANR) which

was established by the French government in 2005 to fund research projects, based on

competitive schemes giving researchers the best opportunities to realize their projects and

paving the way for ground-breaking new knowledge, we could at least say that the newly

established arenas for French researchers were quite successful in bringing more flexibility

to the French research system, in fostering new dynamics, and in triggering new publicprivate


The ANR was also crucial in implementing a major programme called “Investissements

d’Avenir” or “Investments for the Future” which was launched at the end of 2009 and enabled

research and higher education institutions to win an additional 21.9 billion Euros. The main

focus was on ten-year projects opening up new perspectives and leading to collaborative


associations that would otherwise never have existed. Furthermore they are meant to enable

not only the financing of large-scale research projects but also the implementation of new

infrastructures, research equipment and the emergence of global research and higher education


As a member of a commission led by Philippe Aghion I was also involved in developing a

concept for the “Grand Emprunt” which suggested a set of reforms for the French university

system and recommended to the government to establish “Pôle d’excellence” and to provide

opportunities for some of the best French higher education institutions to win a dotation in the

order of 750 to 950 million Euros. The map of France shows the cities that host the winning

institutions. What this map does not show is that Aix-en-Provence and Marseille were

merged into one winning institution and that out of the eight winners four are located in and

around Paris (Ile de France). For a centralised country such as France this result does not

come as a surprise: the French elites and the schools they went to (in particular the Grandes

Ecoles) have always been concentrated in and around Paris.

A much more scattered landscape is presented when we look at the results of the German

Initiative on Excellence in 2006-7 as well as 2012. Right from the start the German initiative

offered funding in three different lines:

• Graduate Schools to promote young researchers and offer them opportunities to prepare

for their doctorates

• Clusters of Excellence to promote cutting-edge collaborative research

• Institutional Strategies to promote top-level research and to enhance international visibility.

During the first two rounds in 2006-7 altogether nine universities were awarded the status of

a university of excellence. In 2012 this number was increased to 11 but at the same time

three formerly included universities had to drop out: The universities of Freiburg and Göttingen

as well as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

The German race for excellence was above all a governance competition. And it aimed at

granting universities more freedom and autonomy. The committee I chaired in 2005 on “The

Cornerstones of a Sustainable German Research System: 12 Recommendations”) had already

made the following recommendation for such an independent university of the future:

“The universities must be given the freedom to participate and succeed in national and inter-


national competition in their respective fields of strength. This requires appropriate decisionmaking,

management and administrative structures for setting priorities in their competitive

environment. The university of the future bases its action on standards deriving from science

and research but it also has an obligation towards society with regard to its activities and with

regard to the return on funds invested in it” (p. 12).

Equally important was another recommendation of the “Cornerstones”, concerning the relationship

between university and non-university research institutions with its central ‒ and at

the same time highly controversial ‒ postulate: “In the interest of their ability to compete at

the international level, the universities must be strengthened through close cooperation with

or even structural integration of non-university research institutions” (p. 14). This recommendation

for the fall of institutional walls was applied by many concepts, most prominently by

the planned merger of the Technical University and the Research Centre Karlsruhe to form

the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology but also at Göttingen (and later on, following in its footsteps,

also at Dresden) through a Göttingen Research Council coordinating all the activities

across five Max Planck Institutes, a Leibniz Institute and a number of other institutions jointly

with the University (thus establishing the Göttingen Research Campus) as well as at Aachen

forming the Jülich-Aachen Research Alliance. Furthermore, new structural elements such as

Institutes of Advanced Study within universities have initiated an exciting process of prioritysetting

and career development. With the help of numerous inter-, and transdisciplinary centres,

clusters, and other organisational structures, it has been possible to coordinate research

efforts beyond individual institutions and to offer new opportunities for career development

based on tenure track options for junior researchers.

In several other European countries we find similar attempts to fostering excellence within

the respective universities. In Spain the initiative “International Campus of Excellence

launched by the Spanish Ministry of Education in 2009 aimed at fostering the modernisation

and internationalisation of Spanish university campuses. It also focused on teaching, research,

and aspects of technology transfer. The ultimate goal in Spain has been almost the

same as in other European countries: To achieve greater international visibility of campuses

and to enhance international exchanges of students, academics, and researchers. Also in

Denmark and Sweden there were several attempts made to create excellent research environments

on top of already quite well-performing universities. The “Linnaeus environments”

in Sweden aimed at enhancing support for research of the highest quality that can compete

internationally and supported the respected units for up to ten years. That is also the time

frame for the Danish National Research Foundation’s programme on “Centres of Excellence


which are usually supported with some 6 to 13 million Euros per annum for periods of up to

ten years.

Ultimately, all of these reform measures will be judged by the degree to which more creativity

has been achieved in research, teaching, and research management. Of course, everyone

would like to end up with the researcher carrying super results under his arms. But I am

afraid to say that we will also have to take a closer look at the poor guy in the middle with his

heroic failures. Perhaps, at times there is even more to learn from failure than from success.

3. Drawbacks, Dichotomies, Imbalances, and Constraints

Applicants as well as funders are aware of the crucial importance of peer review in the process

of identifying promising new ideas as well as in making judgements on research results.

On the one hand it is crucial to convey the message that high international standards will be

applied. On the other hand it is just as important not to discourage some of the most creative

minds from applying. If the result is similar to the one exposed in the following cartoon then

we may have made a terrible mistake. Of course, we will always end up with more thumbs

down than thumbs up in our assessment and selection processes.

My experience tells me that it is important to identify members of assessment panels in such

a way that they themselves must have a track record of transgressing disciplinary and/or

national boundaries, of being open-minded for new ideas. Hopefully, not like a quite prominent

panel member in a German high-level decision-making body who stated quite recently:

“I am always in favour of new ideas but this one I have never heard of.” I rather prefer the

collegial approach demonstrated in the following cartoon. Whenever a researcher assumes

that a miracle occurs, the advice: “I think you should be more explicit here in step two” is

hopefully well taken.

In higher education and research-policy making we often tend to think in terms of binary positions

(black vs. white, big vs. small, etc.). This mode of thinking in many respects implies that

we end up in controversies about dilemmas and false dichotomies, and thus neglect the

manifold interdependencies and the permeability of existing boundaries among and between

certain domains. One such area concerns the relationship between core-funding and additional,

third-party funding in European universities. Making the university compete for additional

income and higher reputation was thought to be the right approach to improving its

performance across all operational units. And we have indeed seen many positive results,

particularly among the winners in national competitions and international rankings. However,


when we take a closer look at more recent developments, we cannot help but recognize that

not all the good intentions have resulted in optimal solutions. On the contrary, some unin-

tended consequences have in the meantime led to huge imbalances and even counterpro-

ductive effects which can no longer be ignored when it comes to taking stock and reconfigur-

ing institutional structures, processes, and procedures.

Another imbalance concerns the area of quality assurance. No doubt, the implementation of

evaluation processes and assessment exercises at regular intervals has brought about not

only a wealth of information about the respective unit of analysis but also initiated a lot of

learning processes as well as numerous improvements. For many a rector and president the

results of such state-, or country-wide comparisons have been serving as eye-openers concerning

the qualitative positioning of the department or centre assessed. But if we look at the

current situation of an almost ubiquitous array of monitorings, reviews, assessments, and

evaluations we cannot help but recognize that these various instruments in one way or another

have fallen victim to their own success.

As early as 1997, of course against the backdrop of an “explosion” of auditing and evaluation

activities in the United Kingdom and North America since the early 1980s, Michael Power in

his book “The Audit Society. Rituals of Verification” (Oxford University Press) pointed at the

manifold dysfunctional consequences of formalizing quality assurance and accountability,

and of “using inappropriately deterministic performance measures in contexts like fundamental

research, where there is high uncertainty of outcomes.” (ibid., p. 100) With respect to the

Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) Michael Power criticized the fact that they created

incentives to teach less and write more” as well as their at best ambivalent impact on the

existing research culture: “Cycles of research have changed in favour of publication in prestigious

journals rather than books. Scientists are changing research habits, and a whole

menu of activities for which performance measures have not been devised have ceased to

have official value. Editing books, organizing conferences, and, paradoxically, reviewing and

facilitating the publication efforts of others fall out of account.” (ibid., p. 100)

This kind of governing higher education and research through rendering them audible has

long since then reached its limits. Some even argue that a new disease called “Evaluitis”

(Wolfgang Frühwald) is spreading across Europe, and all major research organizations, funding

agencies, and private foundations are currently confronted with huge difficulties in recruiting

top-notch researchers for reviews (on average less than one in four referees contacted

respond positively to the request). We have obviously been putting too much stress on the

review system. But eminent experts are indispensable for making sound judgements. Even


the most sophisticated indicators can provide us with little more than proxy-measures of past

performance. Several of them tell us just to what extent managerial requirements and mile-

stones have been met. In order not to be misunderstood, let me just say that I do not think

managerial aspects should be underestimated, or even neglected. On the contrary, they are

quite important for the well-functioning of any institution. But good housekeeping is only a

necessary precondition for institutional success. It takes much more than measurably meets

the eye to provide a stimulating environment for the most creative researchers and students


Over the past two decades we have seen in almost all EU Member States an enormous shift

in resource allocation in our universities. Whilst institutional core funding has at best been

stagnating, in real terms even reduced, the amount of money distributed through competitive

mechanisms such as initiatives on excellence and increasingly through programme approaches

has been going up almost constantly at the national as well as at the European

level. A few facts and figures may suffice to illustrate this point: In 1995 one Euro of third party

funding for research was still matched by 2 Euros of core funding at German universities,

whilst in 2008 there were only 85 cents of core funding for research left in relation to one Euro

granted by funding agencies. This has put an enormous pressure on researchers to see to

it that they can win ever more grants and contracts from funding agencies and industry. In

particular during the last five or six years the machinery to earn more grants has reached its

limits, and unintended effects come to the fore in large numbers. A lot of time that could better

be used to focus on real research work has to be spent on producing ever more proposals

and applications. At the next level all of these applications have to be reviewed by

numerous peers. Ultimately the time allotted to most of the grants made is fairly short (usually

two to three years) and does not allow to tackle the really big, complex research questions.

Rather researchers have to play it safe in order to be able to send in the next proposal just in

time for extending the contracts of their co-workers depending on third party funding. As

more and more of the soft money available is topically defined through programme approaches,

the freedom to select topics by the researchers themselves is being reduced, and

really original thoughts can rarely be found in this realm.

4. Creative Environments: Infrastructures, Time, and Space

A new idea, an insight, or an invention often begin by seeing things differently. As if one were

to see them in another light or with the eyes of someone else. The Nobel Prize winner Richard

Feynman once described such a moment which led him out of a long phase of stagnation

that induced a new definition of basic physical laws as an intellectual fluke. As he sat in the


cafeteria of Cornell University watching two students tossing back and forth coats of arms

inscribed plates like frisbees, a new idea occurred to him on how to combine the hitherto

separate fields of electrodynamics and quantum mechanics. The inspiration derived from

playful observation meant a breakthrough for Feynman (and the world of physics) to a new

thought which ultimately ‒ as he wrote about it himself ‒ almost on its own coalesced into a

convincing theory of quantum electrodynamics: “It was effortless. It was easy to play with

these things. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately

there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came

from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.” (Richard Feynman,1985, p. 167 f.)

Looking back in that way, one could easily get the impression that a creative gain in insight is

a matter of coincidence, the result of personal as well as structural contingency. But several

studies which pursued the question as to why there are far more ground-breaking insights

obtained under one set of institutional conditions than another show that it is not the case.

The American researcher of scientific discovery, Rogers Hollingsworth, has for instance investigated

why there are many more breakthroughs at medium-sized universities than at

facilities which are much larger and thus in principle could offer manifold opportunities for

transdisciplinary cooperations. He came to the conclusion that in addition to a clear strategic

orientation and an overall research-friendly climate, the balance between a sufficient degree

of diversity of disciplines and the most intense degree of communicative interaction had to be

guaranteed. If the facility is too small and homogenous in orientation, the potential for extradisciplinary

stimulation will be missing. If the institution is too large and heterogenous, there

are hardly any opportunities for personal contact. Narrow disciplinary focus leads to monotony;

all-encompassing breadth transforms the degree of diversity to unproductive heterogeneity.

In both extremes intellectual creativity is ultimately stymied and along with it the generation

of transformative knowledge.

All research institutions should aim at establishing and fostering a culture of creativity. Admittedly,

‘creativity’ just like ‘innovation’ is also one of the most overused and underdefined

terms in the current research literature. The common denominator seems to be that creativity

manifests itself in a piece of work that requires not merely mechanical skills to produce it but

intelligence and imagination. To foster such creativity in a research institution, at least the

following preconditions have to be met:

Competence: The first precondition of a culture of creativity is to provide the best training for

the future generation of academics and to enable researchers in general to develop their

skills as freely as possible.


Courage: Not only researchers, but also the institutional leadership and funders must be

both courageous and adventurous. You can only encourage people to enter new fields and

leave the beaten track if you are prepared to share the risks. The readiness to take risks

must be complemented by a high degree of error tolerance.

Communication: Thought-provoking discussions are essential for achieving progress in

research, in particular cross-disciplinary and transcultural exchanges, but also interactions

with the outside world.

Innovativeness: The fourth precondition is that the institution actively fosters innovativeness.

Those researchers who are prepared to take a risk with unconventional approaches

need to be identified and encouraged. Academic leaders as well as heads of foundations and

other funding organizations must appreciate un-conventional approaches and encourage

risk-taking by providing incentives such as additional funding and long-term commitments.

Persistence and Perseverance: To forge new paths in a barely known territory often takes

longer than two or three years, the usual lengths of project funding. Mistakes must be allowed

as well as changes of direction. To put it in the words of Albert Einstein: “Two things

are indispensable for our research work: untiring persistence and the readiness to dispose of

something in which we have invested a lot of time and hard work.”

Diversity: As we have already learned from Rogers Hollingsworth’s studies, monocultures in

academia do not provide an adequate breeding ground for exceptional thoughts. New

knowledge is usually formed at the boundaries of established fields, so the interfaces between

these areas of expertise must be activated. To be successful it is essential to provide

ample opportunities for all the researchers to interact intensively so that new paths can be

developed and breakthroughs achieved.

Serendipity: It is impossible to plan the precise moment at which a radically new idea

emerges or a major scientific discovery occurs. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once

said: “Sometimes we do not know what we are looking for, until we finally found it.” But there

are numerous examples in the history of research which prove that it is possible to establish

a particularly stimulating environment more conducive to scientific breakthroughs than others.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all kind of recipe we can apply, it is certainly worthwhile

to try and try again.

Achieving and maintaining a culture of creativity is not at all straightforward. On the contrary,

it is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Whilst every institution, not least for securing its

own survival, has to insist that its members adhere to its rules, quality standards, etc. the

creation of new ideas ultimately is about breaking the rules, fighting against common wisdom,

and in particular for its leadership about being tolerant to errors made. Epistemologically

speaking, radically new ideas can often not be phrased in terms of the initial question, and


the openness for "fresh thinking" is not only required by those who produce new ideas, but

also by those who are expected to pick them up.

The prerequisites given for establishing a true culture of creativity may nevertheless not appeal

to everyone. As the following cartoon demonstrates, there may also be different ways of

not falling into despair, or least finding a way out of it by waiting for the right moment of inspiration:

last minute panic.

In the United States as well as in Europe, many private foundations – and more recently also

public agencies ‒ have developed new, medium- to long term funding schemes enabling

some of the creative researchers to pursue their research ideas in a high trust environment.

These are for instance the MacArthur Foundation, in the biomedical and clinical research

areas the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust as well as for all areas

of science the Swedish Wallenberg Foundation with its Academy Fellowships. They provide

their rigorously selected fellows with sufficient funds, top-notch infrastructures, and ample

time (usually 7 or 8 years) to rethink common wisdom and to ultimately achieve important


The European Research Council (ERC) which was established in 2007 operates along similar

lines. As I was involved in setting it up at several stages (German Council of Science and

Humanities in the early 1990s, a Nature article in 2002, a panel of the European Science

Foundation in 2003, and a committee established by the Danish Government on behalf of the

EU Council of Ministers) I can tell you that the ERC is a perfect example for the wisdom of

Victor Hugo’s statement: “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has


It took only a few calls for proposals and the rigorous selection of starting grants as well as

advanced fellows to establish the ERC selection processes and their outcomes as benchmarks

for excellence (some even say “the gold standard”) in research. As the fellows chosen

are free to select their host institution anywhere in Europe, their affiliations have become a

matter of great concern for research policy-makers as well as university leaders in many EU

Member States. In the case of Germany, the results confirm that we are still producing a lot

of outstanding researchers but that more of them decide to work in other countries than foreign

researchers coming to Germany.

This (relatively speaking) lack of attractiveness of German universities and research institutions

is closely linked to the uncertainties a postdoctoral fellow is confronted with, in particu-


lar if he or she wants to become a professor. There are hardly any tenure track positions,

and even an outstanding performance does not guarantee a reliable path towards a professorship.

The Volkswagen Foundation wants to establish role-models for changing this situation

by offering Lichtenberg Professorships (supported for up to 8 years) linked with a tenure

track option to be ultimately confirmed after 4 years. Also the Dilthey, Schumpeter, and most

recently the Freigeist Fellowships offer funding for up to 8 years, whilst the internationally

oriented fellowships are designed to enable young postdocs to spend a year or two in an

excellent research environment abroad such as Washington University, Harvard, Stanford, or

Princeton in our Humanities initiative. Despite the strong emphasis on people, the

Volkswagen Foundation does not discard the traditional project approach. It offers for example

teams the opportunity to focus on “Key Issues for Academia and Society”, to come up

with unconventional ideas and approaches in “Off the Beaten Track”, and in its latest initiative

“Experiment!” invites researchers to send in bold research ideas on just three pages

which will be reviewed by an international panel without disclosing names and track records

of the respective applicants. This small grants scheme will probably only work if all sides are

prepared to take risks.

5. The Way Ahead

No doubt, the recent initiatives on excellence have induced a new dynamic into the European

higher education and research environment. The quite substantial additional funds provided

have helped to overcome a lot of stumbling blocks with respect to long overdue changes and

reforms. However, there is a serious danger that many of these financial and strategic efforts

will be wasted, if governments – and university leaders – do not ensure more reliable, high

trust modes of long term funding for teaching and research.

In our rapidly changing, increasingly globalized world, we are confronted with huge problems

ranging from local wars and regional conflicts, mass migration, and terrorist attacks all the

way through to earthquakes, pandemics, climate change, and financial instabilities. Many of

these issues can only be dealt with in an adequate way through increasing our knowledge

base. Universities as strongholds of research and training need to recontextualize themselves

and pay attention to the expectations of other stakeholders, their fears and anxieties

as well as their hopes for results and solutions. At the same time the public at large, and politicians

in particular, must acknowledge the fact that the search for fundamentally new

knowledge operates under highly fragile, risky and uncertain conditions. In many instances

the researchers cannot immediately deliver the straightforward answers, forecasts, or solutions

we all would like to see so urgently.


During the next ten to twenty years (this we can say without consulting a crystal ball or involving

witchcraft) we will see quite dramatic changes in our societies. Future growth and

social welfare will increasingly rely on knowledge-intensive products and services. We can

also, particularly in view of the demographic development in Germany and most other European

countries, expect to be faced with the completely new challenge of how an ageing continent

can actually maintain its capacity to innovate intensely. In this respect there is still a lot

to learn for European research policy-makers and university leaders from the U.S. research

universities because quality assurance, foresight activities, priority-setting, and strategic decision-making

will become even more important in the future. Given the overall critical state

of affairs, it is by no means easy to maintain a sense of optimism. But that is what is required

by university as well as foundation leaders, at least in the sense of one of my favourite sayings

about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist which goes like this: “An optimist

knows how bad the world is. A pessimist has to go through the experience of evil over

and over again.”

If Europe wants to achieve real progress, we will have to move even more from short-term,

low trust modes of operation to more rigorous, ex ante-assessments and selection processes

which lead to more stable, medium-, to longterm commitments. Despite the many flaws and

failures that do occur in our universities, the answer cannot be to introduce ever more and

ever tighter reporting and control mechanisms. To my mind we rather need a leap of faith

based on high trust principles that allow for some thorough rethinking of common wisdom

and for conducting research in unknown territories and “off the beaten track” areas. Of

course, it does not suffice to simply provide more time and space for creativity. As many outstanding

research institutions such as Rockefeller University and almost all U.S. research

universities, the Max-Planck-Society, the Wellcome Trust, or Howard Hughes Medical Institute

(to name but a few) are demonstrating, it is a conditio sine qua non to rigorously invest

time and expertise in assessing the candidate’s performance so far, the leadership qualities,

and the potential for future groundbreaking research. Only if all of these aspects and the

consistency of the candidate’s principles, beliefs, values, and actions provide a sufficiently

coherent picture of his or her personality, should we go about hiring the new person. If not,

we should not refrain from searching anew for the best possible candidate.

But once we have made the appointment, we should see to it that the person hired can work

under optimal conditions at the frontiers of knowledge, for at least five to seven years undisturbed

by other assessments than the ones made anyhow by the funding agencies to which

he or she will apply for hopefully at least medium-term grants. If we do not reshape our sys-


tems of assessment and accountability in the direction of high-trust modes of operation, we

will miss, at least that is what I fear, important opportunities for achieving breakthroughs in

basic research and harvesting their potential for innovative developments. Ultimately, these

knowledge gains provide the foundations on which tomorrow’s world will be built.

At a time when the creation, distribution, and absorption of new knowledge are happening

almost simultaneously, many conventional arrangements and modes of operation become

fragile. Buzzwords like “e-learning”, ”e-research”, “virtual laboratories”, “e-science”, “digital

humanities”, “self-publishing”, and “open access” may just indicate the direction in which we

are already moving. No doubt, the Internet will continue to extend the boundaries of scientific

and scholarly knowledge.

Obviously, it will also reframe the boundary conditions under which our institutions are operating.

Not only will libraries and bookstores be transformed into communications and media

centres, but also administrative and decision-making processes will be affected by the opportunities

provided on electronic platforms, etc. Given the current economic crisis and the fact

that in many countries conventional sources of money are drying up, we can already come

across several attempts on the Internet to develop new platforms for fund-raising. Donation

platforms such as “ASHOKA. Innovators for the Public” invite everyone on the Internet to join

them in “Investing in new solutions for our world’s toughest problems”. And the website of the

“Open Genius Project” explicitly states: “Our mission is to connect people and researchers,

for the sake of alleviating academic poverty.”

According to the protagonists of “Open Genius” this kind of crowdfunding is not just a recent

trend, but represents a powerful channel with engaged communities capable to generate a

critical mass of economic resources with the scope to source science projects. And in this

respect I agree with them. Crowdfunding is there to stay, and it will be the task of university

leaders, directors of funding agencies, and heads of private foundations alike to position

themselves in this rapidly changing funding landscape, in particular with a view to quality

assurance and framework conditions for accommodating these new opportunities within their

respective institution.

In an institution like a university that is characterized by a wide array of only loosely coupled

units of operation, it is virtually impossible to simply impose new directions. Transformational

leadership begins with listening to the various stakeholders, takes enormous amounts of

commitment and communication efforts, builds strong and trustful relationships, and if successful

it ends with creating the right conditions under which its members can realize their


highest aspirations. In the end, creative researchers as well as university and foundation

leaders will ever so often have to be reminded (or to remind themselves) of the following

statement by Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail


Thank you very much for listening.


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