A conversation with the Director of the Center for Cluster Development at Freie Universität Berlin, Professor Carsten Dreher
Professor Dreher, you are the Director of the Center for Cluster Development, which was set up at Freie Universität following the university’s success in the Excellence Initiative established by the German federal government and the governments of the Länder. You are also a professor of innovation management at the Department of Business and Economics. What is it about this combined role that appeals to you?
My main areas of focus in my academic work are strategic planning for research and innovation management. That is exactly why heading up the Center for Cluster Development is appealing to me. It is one of three Strategic Centers that play an important role in the implementation of Freie Universität Berlin’s concept for the future. My goal is to work with my colleagues to build clusters in order to pave the way for new, innovative research findings on issues of broader social importance and to bring in more external funding for the university. Another factor that holds additional personal appeal for me is that due to the wide variety of disciplines represented at Freie Universität, I have the opportunity to work with a whole range of different topics and areas.
The Center concentrates on research clusters, or interdisciplinary research alliances. Is research that takes place solely within one department considered behind the times?
The two are not mutually exclusive. Research within the departments is the foundation for academic excellence. Only if we employ the methods developed and upheld within the departments will we be able to conduct research within interdisciplinary alliances and provide inspiration that transcends department and subject-specific lines.
How do you approach the development of new research emphases?
Above all, we try to find opportunities to speak with representatives of the departments about their strengths and activities, but also about potential weaknesses. We talk to scientists and scholars who have organized internal competitions for external funding. To prompt the discussion and serve as an initial basis, we also draw on other factors, such as the results of analyses of potential. But the one thing that is at the forefront throughout the process is dialogue. No one on my team can be equally expert in plant biology and linguistics, but we aim to support the scholars and scientists in all questions arising outside of their specific disciplines. I recall the example of a Danish pharmaceutical company that is the world market leader in its segment. The company has a “creative fire brigade” – and that’s really what they call it – that is called into action whenever researchers get stuck on an issue. The fire brigade provides new ideas and perspectives. I think this example is instructive even to excellent scientists and scholars at a university, because it teaches us that it is worthwhile to try out new approaches sometimes.
What do you see as the basis for successful innovation in research?
The primary factor, of course, is excellence in academic and scientific work. But there are also other things that are important, such as the willingness and ability to engage in dialogue, and both interest and curiosity. These are precisely the qualities we aim to cultivate within the Center for Cluster Development.
How are research clusters developed, and how is external funding for them acquired?
When it comes to achieving success in applying for funding within the research clusters, it is important to link the fields in which our researchers are ahead of others with the research needs and interest in research findings that exist in society on the whole. Then we can begin gathering support from funders or sponsors for the research needs we have identified.
What role does the organization of research within clusters play internationally? Can you cite some successful examples?
When is research not international? Just consider the genome projects, or major international projects in the humanities in developing published editions of certain works. A group of our colleagues in the Netherlands who are doing research on the dynamics of science and academia have found that research is increasingly international in nature.
Has the Excellence Initiative prompted any differences between the universities?
The performance and output of universities in Germany varied even before the excellence competition. This fact has only become more obvious now, and of course it has been further intensified by the competitions.
Where do you see Freie Universität Berlin among its international competitors in five years?
Even farther ahead than it already is. We have been working hard toward that goal for over a year now, and will continue to do so.
Interviewer: Carsten Wette
Professor Carsten Dreher, born in 1962, has been the Director of the Center for Cluster Development at Freie Universität Berlin since March 2009. Previously, he worked as a professor of innovation research and innovation management as well as the Director of the International Institute of Management at the University of Flensburg, and as a professor at the Mads Clausen Institute of Product Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark, located in the Danish city of Sønderborg. After earning his Diplom degree in economic engineering in 1988 and earning a doctorate in a program for working professionals in 1996 at the University of Karlsruhe, he went on to become the head of the Industry and Service Innovation department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. He was involved as a researcher in the EU program “Forecasting in Service and Technology” and in the MIT Industrial Performance Center. Dreher serves as a peer reviewer for academic journals (such as Research Policy), for the EU and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), and is a member of the DIME Network of Excellence.