President of Freie Universität Berlin
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and guests,
it is my pleasure to welcome you to Freie Universität Berlin, on this historical and future-oriented research campus in Dahlem. This is a very special location, with a configuration of academic institutions unusual, perhaps even unique, in Germany. More than 8,000 individuals work in Berlin-Dahlem in knowledge-related fields. This number includes Freie Universität, four Max Planck Institutes, and the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing. It is an international campus that brings together researchers from every region of the world, and it is a young campus, with more than 4,000 graduate students working toward a doctorate. Twenty-five percent of them are from other countries in Europe, Asia, the United States, and Africa. It is an inspiring location and therefore, very well suited to discuss an issue that concerns all of us: “Planning Research for the Future.”
The easiest way out of this issue would be to say that it is in the nature of the future, to not be predictable. But we are not gathered here to hold philosophical discussions on the uncertainty of what lies before us. We are dealing with something else, that is, the extent to which universities and other academic institutions can align their activities to meet future challenges. Without attempting to prejudice the conference discussions, I would like to outline two distinctive positions that cover the field of research planning from extremely contrasting perspectives. Briefly, they can be said to represent pro and con positions. Position one: Research does not follow five-year plans, but rather is driven intrinsically. According to this position, it is not possible to anticipate future research themes because they emerge through autonomous innovation processes with very limited steering opportunities. In 1919 the eminent sociologist Max Weber gave a speech entitled “Science as a Vocation,” in which he stated that research is ultimately irrational and uncontrollable. More pointedly, because an element of surprise and the unexpected are part of groundbreaking research, such research eludes the regulating grasp of formal planning. If we adhered to this position, we could end the conference immediately and start the social hour. But of course, it is not that easy because the second perspective is still missing. According to this position, research planning does not mean anticipating future-oriented topics, but rather structural preparation that creates conditions conducive to the development of such topics. The fact that chance sometimes leads to success does not make institutional planning unnecessary. On the contrary: in light of constraints in public finance, universities and other research institutions can only continue to achieve excellent results, if they succeed in planning their actions. Their autonomy ultimately depends upon their success in future-oriented self-organization and planning.
In principle, I agree with the first position in its basic assumption that research must remain autonomous and open to surprise. However, as the president of an outstanding university, I also believe that we need planning in order to ensure precisely this autonomy of research. I wish to illustrate this need in the current situation. It is not only in Germany and Great Britain that one complains much about the underfunding of public universities and the tendency of the government to withdraw from its responsibility to provide the main financial support for the universities. The situation is quite different in each of the separate European countries. While Great Britain relentlessly exposes some of its traditional university disciplines to a downright Darwinist competition, in Germany the university system is still basically financed by the government, whereby the lack of tuition generates considerable financial constraints. Regardless of such differences, it should be noted: the times when public monies in Europe were lavished on universities belong to the past. How can universities cope with this situation?
First of all, they should not complain and otherwise just wait and see what hap-pens. But many universities do just that by letting themselves be guided by thinking that is reminiscent of the Christian principle of Providence. Actions, according to this principle, follow the law of a superior force, whose intentions are inscrutable and whose dynamics cannot even be imagined. The impression that universities often act fatalistically and without selfdetermination can be illustrated with various examples. Most of them operate under the illusion that success in the areas of research, teaching, and management results through a combination of random impulses. They permit themselves the luxury of letting their best minds work next to each other and not with each other. They maintain structures that slow down decision-making processes rather than accelerate them. They utilize their public alimentation without implementing basic systems of a fair performance-based allocation of funds. They ignore the fact that the quality of research depends not only on equipment but also on the spirit and the inspiring effect of an institution. They waste resources and personnel for tasks that are not well coordinated, for projects that are misaligned, and for randomly driven decision making that is seldom organized systematically. Such examples make it difficult for traditionally organized universities to find acceptance for their legitimate demands for better funding. In the meantime, however, it seems to me that the situation has changed somewhat.
The differentiation of European universities has advanced in recent years. In this process higher education in Europe has moved in the direction of developments made in the United States during the past 100 years. In Germany this process was driven significantly by the government’s Excellence Initiative. The universities that were successful in this competition have around 20 – 30 million euros of additional funding at their disposal, which has contributed to at least a temporary improvement in conditions for junior researchers and the development of research at the respective universities. Another crucial aspect, however, is that the Excellence Initiative provided the impetus – in some cases for the first time – for medium-term planning on a strategic basis. If some universities such as my own, Freie Universität Berlin, or others such as Technische Universität München or Karlsruhe Institute of Technology are better prepared than others for this type of competition, it is because of their willingness to establish strategic organizational structures that help them meet the challenges of the future more rationally and efficiently. New possibilities for university autonomy develop through self-directed planning processes. They clearly provide universities – but also non-university advanced research institutions – more self-determination than the usual rhetorical rituals at the wailing wall of public criticism of government. This is where the autonomy of the universities gains a new dimension. It can no longer be taken for granted, but rather must be worked hard to achieve. Its essential ingredient is the ability of the university to detect the challenges of the future as early as possible.
At this point I will take the liberty of using an example of such planning processes at my own university. In recent years Freie Universität has moved ahead with important developments in autonomy and steering. The university has not only established two large research clusters and four graduate schools funded through the German Excellence Initiative, but it has also set up three separate strategic hubs that are responsible for planning future research, the targeted support of young scholars, and internationalization. The university has established five focus areas that serve as platforms for bringing together multidisciplinary research projects and create the conditions for the formation of international and regional research networks. The network model has proven to be well suited to the research region of greater Berlin, as it is a system that promotes cooperation without limiting academic freedom. It is open to expansion, allows fair cooperative working relationships, and creates promising dynamics conducive to future collaboration. Freie Universität will continue to pursue and expand this strategy as part of its new future development strategy for the Excellence Initiative in 2012, expanding its well-proven international network model while simultaneously placing more emphasis on regional partnerships. The university’s guiding principle continues to be strategic control that does not determine the research topics a priori, but creates the structures that make the innovations of tomorrow possible.
Is it possible to plan research for the future? Kant says the following in his essay “Dispute between the Faculties” (1798): members of the general public do not expect that researchers will tell them what they do not understand. Rather, they expect the impossible: sinners expect theology to point the way to salvation, the guilty expect jurisprudence to tell them how to gain acquittal, and those who ravish their own bodies wish medicine to give them the recipe for eternal life. This shows with Kant that any expectation for the application of science creates a paradox because the life-world claim that stands in the back-ground cannot be met. What Kant’s assessment does not refute is the possibility for building institutional structures and networks that create conditions conducive to optimal cooperation for all potential partners. This should also be a goal of research planning for the future.
Ladies and gentlemen: We have gathered here today to discuss possibilities for strategic development and management of research for the future. This is an issue that requires more than a few days, so we will only be able to make preliminary surveys of the vast range of possible topics. This meeting was made possible by the Center for Cluster Development of Freie Universität, with important financial and organizational support from the Stifterverband für die deutsche Wissenschaft. I wish to compliment the organizing team for their professional and dedicated planning, and I wish to thank the Stifterverband for their support and contribution to a successful conference! Furthermore, I wish to thank our illustrious guests from around the world for not only attending this event, but also for agreeing to give presentations, and for the interest shown in the subject. Welcome to Freie Universität on the research campus in Berlin-Dahlem. The floor is opened.