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In my opinion

What Canada can learn from Germany’s approach to research

On a recent tour of the European country’s universities and research institutes, we met North American academics who were drawn to much more than the apple strudel, wiener schnitzel and fine chocolate.

BY JULIE CAFLEY & BALJIT SINGH | DEC 21 2021

With Governor General Mary Simon choosing to visit Germany on her first international state visit, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after 16 years, Canada has been paying attention to this economic and research powerhouse.

As the fourth largest economy in the world, with the third largest number of Nobel laureates, and over three per cent of GDP invested in research and development annually, Canadians could learn a lot from Germany’s success.

Having Dr. Merkel, a quantum chemist and former physicist, as leader goes a long way to supporting science and curiosity-driven research. The outgoing German chancellor gained a stellar reputation for making decisions based on science when it came to tackling important policy issues such as COVID-19, climate change and artificial intelligence. Germany’s commitment to research and science, however, runs much deeper than the impact of its departing leader. It is woven into the cultural and scientific context of the entire nation.

We recently returned from an eight-day tour of German universities and research institutes, led by the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD), the world’s largest connector of students and researchers. The trip informed these reflections on lessons for the Canadian context.

The essential role of universities and research institutes play in Germany’s prowess as a manufacturing nation is clear. Public and private investment in research development, according to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, contributes well over the equivalent of C$150 billion to the economy annually. The German Research Foundation, as the central funder, contributes over $4.8 billion. The equivalents to Canada’s National Research Council include the Helmholtz Association, the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer Society, and the Leibniz Association, which have institutes clustered near the universities. There are over 140 state-funded, non-university research institutes across Germany that focus solely on government research. To further fuel its research engine, Germany’s clusters of excellence program, launched in 2019, contributes over $560 million annually over a seven-year period, which can be renewed.

Germany’s research prowess is not only driven by their world-class universities. It is noteworthy that nearly two-thirds of the total $150 billion in research and development funding in Germany is invested by the private sector. That compares to around 42 per cent of Canada’s $36.8 billion gross expenditures on research and development. The robust ecosystem facilitating collaboration between private and academic sectors, especially the applied technology universities, ensures that all this funding is utilized to ensure Germany remains a global manufacturing and exporting powerhouse. Germans seem to have moved past the debate between basic and applied research, as shown by large numbers of Nobel laureates and its thriving manufacturing engine.

We met with North American academics who were attracted to Germany for much more than the apple strudel, wiener schnitzel and fine chocolate. In listening to these impressive, early-stage researchers, four important messages prevailed: a greater understanding of the need for time, space, money and trust.

North American academics based in German universities and research institutes reflected on the ease of funding mechanisms, the aligned systems for grant applications, and how research funding was long-term. One young, North American academic explained how she was fully funded for a decade with no further efforts to secure funding. Her full-time role was research and discovery. In contrast, Canadian researchers fumble through a fragmented system of infrastructure asks, operating applications and provincial matching mechanisms. Germany’s aligned and long-term research commitments make sense, and empower researchers do what they do best: discover.

Further, DAAD enables and encourages students globally to study in Germany and creates pathways for German students and researchers to study abroad. Due to this focused strategy, 33 per cent of German students go abroad to study, compared to a mere two per cent in Canada. Imagine the partnerships, collaborations, personal growth and creativity that stems from this fundamental opening of the mind to other ways of learning and knowing? And, to make it happen, Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and German Research Foundation (Deutschland Forschungsgemeinschaft or DFG) recently renewed a partnership to fund training and research projects.

Germany has built a solid foundation to benefit from the long-term potential of transformative research. Perhaps the magic ingredient is trust. The country trusts in science, in evidence and in researchers.

Julie Cafley is an academic with expertise in public policy, governance and higher-education leadership. She is the vice-president, communications and external relations at the Digital Research Alliance of Canada. Baljit Singh is a highly accomplished researcher, educator and administrator in the field of veterinary medicine. He is vice-president, research and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

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  1. Philippa / January 6, 2022 at 00:07

    Dear Julie Carley, thank you for this article. As a German researcher I must therefore admit that even if the amounts you quoted are fantastic and impressive the German academic and research environment has enormous structural problems. The percentage of short term contracts is of 80 or 90% for post doc researchers and so called junior researchers. Only 4 % will get into a permanent position. The funding situation is as short sighted as you described it for Canada. One cannot concentrate on one projects but needs always to be on the run for the next to secure the funding, to keep people etc. The cited 10 year funding is a real exception. Normal projects are running for one, two or three years, no longer. Long time strategies for the development of digital strategies or anything else are difficult to create within these structures. And create a good living for researchers with family life and a certain security is nearly impossible. If you obtain a good position it’s fantastic, but it’s very very hard. Best from Berlin, Germany.