William Omar Contreras Lopez, University of Freiburg
Prof. Dr. Christian Hackenberger, Freie Universität Berlin
Dr. Cornelis Menke, Die Junge Akademie
Dr. Dagmar Simon, WZB Social Science Research Center Berlin (Facilitator)
The workshop focused on the role of junior researchers in research planning processes. Dagmar Simon opened the session with a retrospective look at discussions between “planning optimists” in politics and ministries and “planning skeptics” in social science research back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nowadays, social science research takes a more sophisticated look at innovation and creativity by discussing different modes of knowledge production. Here, different kinds of research (basic, applied, thematically defined, open) are considered as well as the cooperation between basic and applied research and practitioners.
In order to focus the discussion on which kind of research is needed to tackle the complexity of current societal problems and the specific perspective of younger researchers, Dagmar Simon asked the following questions:
Christian Hackenberger began his contribution with a quote from a recent article published by an American science journalist. The article looked at the career path of young scientists in Germany today, compared it with the traditional path within the “habilitation” system and concluded that “the outcome of reforms and initiatives from different institutions is that a young academic’s career path in Germany has evolved into complexity and a confusing array of parallel ways of pursuing an academic career.” Christian Hackenberger supported this point of view and acknowledged that there are a number of different options for younger researchers to apply for open or thematically focused funding programs in Germany (e.g. Emmy Noether, AvH, Volkswagen Stiftung, BMBF). However, he stressed that irrespective of the source of funding, in the very early stages of their career, younger researchers have to develop their own ideas in order to strengthen their scientific profile and to be competitive later on in the national and international scientific community. The freedom to develop an own scientific profile is thus essential for younger researchers. In addition, Christian Hackenberger emphasized that the transition from young academic careers to more established careers is a critical issue. In order to become an independent and highly regarded scientist it is necessary to acquire a larger cooperative research project, e.g. SFB or Cluster of Excellence. This in turn requires the respective (younger) researcher to have a certain standing but also appropriate funding conditions that enable younger researcher to initiate such projects.
In his opening statement, William Omar Contreras Lopez focused on the specific situation of medical research. Since medical research almost always requires collaboration, larger labs and teams, the careers of younger researchers in most cases start in given structures, i.e. they have to adapt to the thematic priorities and institutional settings provided by the lab at which they do their thesis or postdoc project. When they later specialize, these researchers face two important barriers: First, medical research is often restricted by ethical considerations and corresponding political regulations, in particular regarding stem cell and genomic research. Second, research priorities in medical research have to be committed to the overarching objective of human welfare, i.e. to supporting global health. The question here is who defines the primary direction of medical research? Here, William Omar Contreras Lopez emphasized the critical role of the pharmaceutical industry in setting the agenda for medical research.
In line with his written statement, Cornelis Menke emphasized two main messages in his opening statement. First, he pointed out that the distinction between planned and non-planned research seems to be artificial since research is in most cases a goal-oriented activity and thus “planned” in a certain sense. The crucial question is rather who is setting the research or scientific agenda. Second, Menke pointed out that the “big” research topics set by institutions, e.g. universities, are likely to be contradictory to the topics young researchers are interested in. Since a degree of research planning is legitimate and necessary at both the institutional and the individual levels, the challenge is to match the topics set by an institution, e.g. a university, and the research interests of the scientists working at the institution. From the perspective of a smaller university, the difficulty might be to attract those researchers with an outstanding reputation and compatible thematic profile who are needed to fulfill the research priorities defined by the university.
Taking up Christian Hackenberger’s point about the need for young researchers to develop their own profile at an early stage, William Omar Contreras Lopez pointed out that in the field of medical research, too, there has been a tremen-dous trend towards specialization during the last decades. Nowadays, researchers can only succeed, e.g. when applying for research funding, if they have a very distinctive specialization. Cornelis Menke added that in the humanities it is necessary to develop a proven track record of interdisciplinary work and collaborations, e.g. in order to be appointed to a chair. However, at the same time there is an increasing trend towards specialization among individual researchers due to the new types of career paths. In the old habilitation system most researchers developed at least two thematic foci, one in the course of their thesis work and another in the course of habilitation. Nowadays, there is fierce competition to get postdoc positions within a short time after finishing a PhD, which means there is hardly time to switch the research focus to a second theme. From a natural science perspective, Hackenberger also stressed that it is not only important for young researchers to develop a visible specialization and profile in order to gain renown within the scientific community but also within their own institution. In particular, it is essential for younger researchers, too, to acquire collaborative research projects in order to secure their position within the institution.
With regard to the question of “setting the research agenda” at the individual level, Menke pointed out that in the humanities and also for himself, teaching is an essential way of finding new research topics. Since teaching involves opening up to new issues and reading new articles and books it often leads to the development of new lines of thinking. Lopez stressed that in medical research, new research topics derive directly from everyday clinical work and the actual problems of the patients which are unsolved. From his perspective within science, Hackenberger proclaimed the simple but sound motto of “read and talk”.
The involvement of young researchers in agenda setting on a larger institutional or political scale was discussed in a more critical way. Menke said that from the perspective of a young researcher, these agenda-setting processes (e.g. in the case of a university strategy) take too long. In other words, the time for which a younger researcher stays at one institution is usually too short to get involved in these planning processes and in particular to benefit from the results. The perspective of younger researchers is therefore often more oriented towards their individual autonomy within the research institution or university than towards the stra-tegy of the institution they work at. Hackenberger also raised the point that the influence of younger researchers is often restricted due to their limited experience and lacking research profile. In order to be accepted by the community, young researchers must have proven that their ideas are feasible. In the natural sciences, new topics are usually initiated on the basis of the ground-breaking work done by established researchers. Therefore, the scope for initiating new topics for young researchers is often limited.
In the course of the discussion, the issue was raised that the transition from a well-endowed young investigator grant to an established position as a professor is often problematic. In comparison to the young investigator programs, resources are often more limited for established positions while the competition rises to another level and freshly appointed professors then have to compete with “the big guys”. This transition phase is still a challenge for young investigator programs which is not being adequately addressed. Thus, Hackenberger stressed that these programs should also provide opportunities for their candidates after completion of the program.
summarized by CCD