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How German universities foster R&D

Germany encourages scholars to move from university to business, Hippler tells innovation conference in Ottawa.

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | OCT 31 2014

When it comes to rankings of the world’s most innovative countries, Germany regularly tops the list. The root of its success can be found in the close ties between industry and its universities, according to Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference. The agency represents Germany’s more than 300 universities, including research-intensive institutions and the universities of applied science. Together, the institutions spend about 13 billion Euros a year on research. A third of that amount comes from the private sector, according to Dr. Hippler. Notably, the bulk of industry-sponsored research comes not from the country’s largest corporations but its small and medium enterprises and its network of family-owned firms known as the Mittlestand.

It isn’t just the research partnerships that drive innovation in Germany, however. It’s also the easy movement of academics between the country’s universities, research institutes and businesses and its well-established tradition of student internships that contribute to the country’s R&D success. “This is at the centre of the entire innovation process,” said Dr. Hippler, who spoke at a conference on innovation organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The conference, “Optimizing Canada’s innovation system: Perspectives from abroad,” was held in Ottawa from Oct. 27 to 29. It looked at the role universities can play in fostering research and development, with speakers from Germany, Israel and Canada. Dr. Hippler spoke to University Affairs during a break in the conference proceedings. (University Affairs will have a longer report on the conference in November.)

On fostering close ties between industry and universities

“There was always a very close relationship with industry,” Dr. Hippler said. The ties date back to the early days of Germany’s technical universities, founded in the 19th century with a mandate to foster growth in the country’s economically depressed areas. The industry-university ties began with engineering and spread to other disciplines. “Now life sciences work in close relationship with the chemical industry and the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.

On requiring mandatory internships

A significant aspect of the German system is the movement of professors and students between businesses and academia. Mandatory internships have long been part of the engineering curriculum and are now spreading to other disciplines – including even the humanities and social sciences. When the idea first arose several years ago, philosophy students initially balked at the idea. After trying it, he said, “they were so enthusiastic because they saw the opportunities of what they could do with their education.” In some ways, mandatory internships are more important for students in these fields than those in the natural sciences who have a more direct career path, said Dr. Hippler. Companies support the idea because they know that they depend on a highly skilled workforce to advance their growth and development.

On the tensions between sponsored research and academic freedom

Dr. Hippler noted that just one third of university research funding comes from the private sector. “And most of this money comes from small and medium and family-owned companies.” But, there is an inherent risk in becoming too dependent on private-sector funding and universities must remain vigilant, he acknowledged: “You have to be aware that this is a danger, and if you depend too much on the money from a couple of companies, then you are no longer independent.” Germany’s institutions are a long way away from compromising their independence, he added.

On the challenges of encouraging companies to hire students with advanced degrees

Germany, lacking the advantage of natural resources, has had a robust manufacturing sector for a long time. Its companies have been receptive to hiring students with advanced degrees. “If you have companies that are not selling raw materials and companies which are dependent on high-tech products then they have to innovate,” Dr. Hippler said. “To do this they need new people with different ideas coming from the outside.” German companies have to innovate to stay ahead, he stressed. “If you don’t do anything you will lose your advantage and you’re dead.” It isn’t just its large manufacturers that realize this: small and medium-sized enterprises and family-owned companies have developed a tradition of innovation as well, and having a highly skilled workforce is central to that.

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  1. AS / November 5, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Fascinating perspective in this article!

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