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Excellence Initiative: universities prepare themselves for the future

German universities on course for top-level research – clusters of excellence, institutional strategies and graduate schools are the three lines of support with which the Excellence Initiative of the German Government and the federal states is aiming to improve research resources at German universities. Young scientists and researchers are the beneficiaries.

‘Decoding brain activity’; ‘The secret of life’; ‘Intelligent machinery’: what may sound like tomorrow’s world is already part of the everyday research being done by many scientists at German universities. Hidden behind these exciting working titles are just three of more than 170 research projects being promoted under the Excellence Initiative. The German Government and federal states launched this support programme in June 2005 in order to strengthen science and research at German universities. The German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG) is running the Excellence Initiative in cooperation with the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), and it has received a total of EUR 4.5 billion so far for the two programme phases conducted to date.

Top marks for the universities

The support funds benefit all universities that have successfully entered project proposals in the nationwide competition of the Excellence Initiative. In the first phase of the programme, from 2006 to 2011, 38 projects from 22 universities were selected, out of a total of 319 preliminary proposals from 74 universities. Between 2012 and 2017 in the second phase of the programme, 99 projects from 44 universities have been selected. The research projects chosen to receive support focus on a broad spectrum of different disciplines, ranging from social sciences, IT and biology, through to ‘Decision Sciences’ and ‘Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction’. What they all have in common is their contribution to strengthening top-level research at German universities – the ultimate objective of the Excellence Initiative.

Three paths taken by the Excellence Initiative to reach the research summit

With the Excellence Initiative, the German Government and federal states are pursuing several goals simultaneously. Germany should be strengthened generally as a location for academic research, while at the same time, its international competitiveness improves, and the visibility of the top-level research activities in its universities and scientific institutions increases. To enable it to develop this broad impact, the Excellence Initiative is divided into three funding lines, for which interested universities can submit project proposals:

a) Clusters of excellence for the promotion of top-level research in specific subject areas
b) Institutional strategies for the project-based development of top-level university research
c) Graduate schools to support the next generation of academics in a broad spectrum of research disciplines.

Cluster of excellence at RWTH Aachen University: sustainable mobility for the future

The following examples from each of the three funding lines show how the support of the Excellence Initiative can help to increase the universities’ potentials. For students, young academics and researchers, this is opening up entirely new paths for interdisciplinary and trailblazing science.

The scientists who make up the Cluster of Excellence in the Institute for Combustion Engines at RWTH Aachen University are working as an interdisciplinary team on designing new fuels. They aim to create sustainable fuel from lignocellulosic biomass. At the newly founded Fuel Design Center in Aachen, the researchers, now in their second funding period, are making an important contribution to future sustainable mobility.

Institutional strategy at the University of Bremen: a new university with a spirit of research

The University of Bremen was founded about 40 years ago, making it one of Germany's newest universities. Accordingly, its institutional strategy ‘Ambitious and Agile’, for which it is receiving funding in the second phase of the Excellence Initiative, envisages an institutional ‘career move’ within the international university scene. The support should help the university achieve several objectives. Through the collaboration of young academics and professors, who integrate research projects from outside the university, Bremen is sharpening its profile as an international institution for top-level research. In exploratory projects, scientists are looking at unusual research topics, in which areas the strategic funding is being used to employ professors temporarily. And the University is using attractive first-time placements to support top-level researchers, PhD students and post-doctoral students.

Uni Bremen: Excellence, what does that mean?

The Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies

If you visit a graduate school you can see where the funding from the Excellence Initiative is taking effect. For instance, the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) has been opened in the Faculty of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth. The focus here is on cooperation between young African and non-African academics. Through the growing number of alumni, a number of different networks are being developed between African universities, and the cooperation with European institutions is being strengthened. BIGSAS aims to counteract the academic braindrain from Africa and, in the long run, to pave the way for PhD programmes of a high standard on the African continent.

BIGSAS III -- Research on Africa together with Africa

October 2014

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Albert Juma
30 October 2014

There are many opportunities available in Germany, which is one of the best places in the world to do research or establish an academic career. Having obtained y PhD in Germany, I will be pursuing some of the opportunities I have read here, especially that one regarding establishing high quality PhD programs on African continent to deal with braindrain problem. Thank you for providing such comprehensive information.

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