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Wanted: A new generation of Einsteins

It may have brought the world aspirin, rocket science, quantum physics and the diesel engine, but Germany's days of scientific glory are long gone and it is now hunting for new Einsteins.
An artist adjusts the hair on a wax model of mathematician Albert Einstein at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Shanghai. Germany has launched a plan to improve higher education in a bid to create a new generation of Einsteins.
An artist adjusts the hair on a wax model of mathematician Albert Einstein at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Shanghai. Germany has launched a plan to improve higher education in a bid to create a new generation of Einsteins.
/ Source: Reuters

It may have brought the world aspirin, rocket science, quantum physics and the diesel engine, but Germany's days of scientific glory are long gone and it is now hunting for a new generation of Einsteins.

Decades of underfunding and a distaste for the elitism nurtured by Nazis has meant the world's third-largest economy is trailing its global competitors, causing concern among business leaders and provoking warnings from economists.

With only five universities in the U.S.-dominated top 100 — the University of Munich is highest at 48 — Germany has launched a scheme to compete for funding and create its own "Ivy League."

Two Nobel prizes awarded last month to Germans— a physicist and a chemist — have revived pride in the country's scientific heritage.

"There is a fresh wind," said Kurt von Figura, president of Goettingen's Georg-August University, one of Germany's oldest and most prestigious educational institutions.

"You lose a good reputation over a long period of time and it also takes a long time to rebuild it," he said.

The recent record on Nobel Prizes provides little comfort.

Between 1901 and 1931, German universities and institutes produced 15 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and 10 in physics — more than any other country.

Since 1984, research at U.S. institutions has yielded almost 10 times the number of German-based winners in both fields.

"It's hard to measure, but some data suggest Germany is not doing so well any more, and it needs to do all it can to push ahead. Innovation is essential for the economy in the long term," said Klaus Schruefer, an economist at SEB in Frankfurt.

A brain drain
German companies are proud of the part they played in establishing Germany's reputation as a scientific powerhouse.

German children still learn about chemist Felix Hoffmann, who invented aspirin at Bayer in 1897, and Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, whose work on the first vehicle to be powered by an internal-combustion engine led to car manufacturer Daimler Benz AG.

After World War II sparked a backlash against the Nazi ethic of natural selection and survival of the fittest, universities focused on equality rather than individual excellence.

"The egalitarian approach — born of a fear of elitism after the war — worked well in many ways, but people forgot you can't train everyone to get a Nobel prize," said Stefan Treue, Director of the German Primate Centre, an institute in Goettingen which works closely with the university.

These factors, coupled with funding shortages — the United States spends almost twice as much of its gross domestic product on higher education as Germany — has contributed to a brain drain.

Business is worried.

By 2010, small- and medium-sized firms will be short of 30,000 researchers, say Germany's DIHK Chambers of Industry and Commerce.

This puts Germany at the risk of missing a European Union target of spending 3 percent of GDP on research and development by 2010, up from 2.49 percent in 2005 — above the EU average but below U.S. and Japanese levels.

"Today we need to invest in research to be able to develop and produce the goods for tomorrow. If we don't have the scientists to do the work, we won't have competitive products," said Stephan Wimmers, who specializes in technology at the DIHK.

Rebuilding a powerhouse
One advantage Germany has is the relatively close ties many scientists have to industry, said Wimmers, especially in the automotive sector, which accounts for about 20 percent of German jobs. The trend is less strong in the life sciences.

Industry accounts for about two-thirds of spending on research and development, with the rest from the public sector. That is a higher ratio than many EU rivals, which indicates a good deal of basic science gets transformed into economic activity.

However, there are worrying developments in patent filings where Germany, traditionally one of the world's leaders, has lost out in the past few years to competitors such as China and South Korea, says the Patent Office.

The number of German patents peaked in 2000 with about 53,000 filings, but has slipped to about 48,500. China and South Korea file more than double that, with the United States and Japan dwarfing everyone else with about 400,000.

Experts say the quality of German patents is deteriorating, as most are in aging industries such as engineering. In contrast, countries such as China, Japan and the United States are stronger in advanced technology, which has stronger growth prospects.

"The world is moving on and, while Germany is still world leader in automotive and engineering, we are not keeping up in newer branches, which will be vital in future," said Ludger Woessmann, of Germany's Ifo economic institute.

German scientists say the so-called "excellence initiative" to promote top-level research and improve the quality of German universities is crucial because of the element of competition it has introduced, which has already changed the climate.

"This is more than hot air from politicians," Treue said. "We must work hard to make it work, and the goals won't be reached in the first five or 10 years, but we are on the right track."