Digitisation and Brain Drain – German Research Summit 2023 Offers Insights into Current Challenges in the German R&D Landscape

In late March, the ResearchConnect team attended the German Research Summit alongside key stakeholders from politics, funding bodies and research institutions to support our ongoing coverage of recent trends and developments in the research sector.

The German Research Summit (Forschungsgipfel) is an annual event that has been facilitating discourse between key players and decision makers in innovation and research since 2015. The 2023 summit was jointly organised by Stifterverband, Leopoldina and the Expert Commission for Research and Innovation (EFI), with support from Volkswagen Foundation.

Under the headline ‘Overcoming Barriers and Seizing Opportunities: An Innovation System for Transformation’, the 2023 summit on 28 March brought together representatives from government, industry, science and research funding organisations to assess the current state of R&D in Germany. In a mix of keynote talks and panel discussions, the invited speakers discussed technical and structural challenges, but also shared their visions for a brighter future. The thematic focus of the event was particularly on two areas with urgent need for innovative ideas: the digital transformation in the healthcare sector, and the transition to a sustainable energy system.

The panel discussions were interspersed with impulse talks that summarised the findings of discussion papers by Leopoldina, Stifterverband and EFI, which were released to coincide with the summit.

The Need for Speed and Talent

The introductory keynote was delivered by the German Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Hubertus Heil. He stood in for the chancellor Olaf Scholz who was prevented from attending the event at short notice. Heil’s speech used recent achievements such as the rapid development of the coronavirus vaccine by BioNTech as proof of German innovation capacity in times of need. He conceded that errors were made in the past, particularly in the area of photovoltaic technologies where Germany developed key innovative solutions only to lose its leadership position to China when it came to commercialisation.

Pointing to the recently released national strategy document for research and innovation and associated commitments for high levels of investment in R&D, Heil was however confident that Germany is on the right track to tackle the current challenges. He said: ‘We need to get faster, and we are getting faster!’

In a follow-up discussion, Heil was joined by Sabine Bendiek, who is a member of the executive board of the German software company SAP. The conversation centred around the topic of skilled labour shortage – a concern that was raised again and again throughout the day.

Bendiek emphasised the need to inspire and encourage women to pursue careers in STEM R&D. Yet both Heil and Bendiek agreed that Germany’s ability to attract talent from abroad is a key condition for its future success in innovation. Based on the work of the American urban theorist Richard Florida, Heil quoted three factors for a successful R&D and start-up culture: talent, technology and tolerance. It appeared to be the tolerance aspect that needs stronger attention as Heil emphasised: ‘When we ask for skilled labour, it is not just skilled labour that arrives – it is people.’

Public Buy-In and Shared Responsibility

The issues of a broad buy-in across society and the challenges of the ongoing demographic shift of an ageing society were also addressed in the subsequent panel discussion on the topic of the digital transformation of the German health economy. The panel focussed on the importance of the proposed Digital Patient Files (Elektronische Gesundheitsakte – eGA) to future-proof the overall system. Yet cautionary notes were also sounded. Heyo Kroemer, Chief Executive Officer of Charité, shared his concern about the potential for a ‘Teslaisation‘ of the healthcare sector in Germany if a political consensus on the issue is not found soon. Only a state-run infrastructure of confidential health data can prevent the German healthcare sector being taken over by private solutions that were developed abroad.

The need for the state to step in and support and coordinate consorted developments was also emphasised in the second panel discussion, which was dedicated to the topic of the transition to a sustainable energy system. As Robert Schlögl, President of Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, pointed out, so far, most solution approaches have only been very selective and localised. At the same time, an ‘atomisation of responsibility’ on a political level could be observed, where different federal ministries do not sufficiently coordinate their individual solution approaches.

Uwe Cantner, Professor of Economics at the University of Jena and member of EFI, praised the quick response and good collaboration between research institutions and the government in response to sudden crisis shocks such as the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine. However, he was concerned that the level of flexibility and willingness to adapt was lacking in the face of the much slower and more predictable climate crisis.

Many panel members agreed that a closer collaboration between science and government would be an important step in the right direction. Reiner Haseloff, premier of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, even suggested a basic constitutional change that would see three natural scientists permanently included in the federal government cabinet with a right to veto legislation. While this solution appeared rather extreme and caused amusement in the gathered audience, there was a general consensus that governments must be forced to abandon what Georg Schuette, General Secretary of Volkswagen Foundation, called ‘just-in-time politics’ and move towards a long-term view on political decision making.

A Diversity of Approaches and Scientific Rigour

One issue that drew particular attention in the panel was the need for a multiplicity of approaches to the highly complex challenges posed by the energy transition. Lamia Messari-Becker, Professor of Building Technology at University of Siegen, outlined that there is a need to remove false assumptions and biases surrounding different technologies in order to utilise all possible avenues. Other panel members highlighted the need for good science communication to support public buy-in.

Holger Hanselka, President of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), joined Messari-Becker in raising concerns about partisan research that abandons scientific rigour and transparency in favour of politically favourable results. He stated rather bluntly that political decisions should not be made on the basis of simple Excel calculations.

Taking the discussions of the day full circle, the panel emphasised yet again the importance of good working conditions for both domestic and international researchers in order to retain talent and prevent brain drain.

The discussion papers by Leopoldina, Stifterverband and EFI are available to download from the Research Summit website. Recordings of all of the day’s talks and discussions can be accessed via the Forschungsgipfel YouTube channel.

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