There are several open letters that have been received by Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) these days. The senders are scientists from various large research projects, the tenor is the same.
There is talk of an “unjustified waste of scientific work”, of “cynical” cuts and of “problematic tendencies” that would “complicate” excellent and necessary research. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) “damages” scientists and their reputation as well as national and international research relationships.
The background is the same: Stark-Watzinger’s ministry stopped long-term approval notices, some of which were large. Entire funding lines are in danger of being discontinued abruptly or have already been stopped at short notice, and the German contribution to international cooperation is at risk.
“Trust in the BMBF has been shaken for a long time,” says Jule Specht, psychology professor at Humboldt University, which affects a research project in the “Social Effects of the Corona Crisis” funding line. “There’s a lot of frustration for everyone involved.”
Marianne Braig, former Vice President of Freie Universität, comments on the FU website with the words: “As a scientist, I have never experienced anything like it.” Braig is part of the “BioTip” project, which examines tipping points, dynamics and interactions of social and ecological systems researched. The project was abruptly ended by the BMBF two years before the official end and in the middle of the ongoing process.
It is unclear exactly how many programs are affected – some researchers organize themselves on Twitter and in Zoom calls to get an overview. According to information from the Tagesspiegel, in addition to the topics of “social consequences of the corona pandemic” and bio-ecology, there is also research on right-wing extremism and innovative women’s programs.
But not only the humanities are affected, according to the Technical University, which is also receiving increasing calls for funding cuts: “We are observing this trend with concern and hope that funding cuts can be avoided in the interests of a stable and sustainable research landscape,” it says the TU.
One example is the “Biotip” program: around 130 scientists have been working on it since 2019, in an international network. The projects are “internationally exemplary for the issue of planetary boundaries and the loss of biodiversity,” says the open letter from the “Biotip” researchers to Stark-Watzinger, which is available to the Tagesspiegel. As early as mid-2021, the BMBF asked all projects to submit outlines for a planned two-year extension. The applications were submitted in February.
All the more surprising was the announcement on June 9th that the entire extension phase would be cancelled. According to the open letter, the BMBF justified this with “currently lower available budget funds and new priorities in addition to research activities that generate a quick impact”.
The latter in particular was received almost incredulously by the universities involved. “While extreme weather situations such as heat waves and droughts are occurring with increasing regularity in Germany, groundbreaking socio-ecological research projects are being cut at the same time,” criticizes FU President Günther M. Ziegler when asked.
The universities are aware of the tense budget situation, “but cutting important research because you don’t expect it to have a quick impact, that’s worrying short-term thinking.” According to this logic, there would be no developments in quantum computers or artificial intelligence in Germany, not to mention Covid vaccines. “If we rely on short-term optimization of effects, we will not get very far.”
Many of those affected are very angry, especially because the commitments have often been made for months and the projects have long been ready to go. HU psychologist Jule Specht, for example, had already received a funding commitment in January for her joint project, which is part of the funding area on the social effects of the pandemic. It’s about 700,000 euros in three years.
It was supposed to start by July 1st at the latest. But in mid-June, almost two weeks before the start, the funding decision had still not arrived. In a phone call to the project sponsor, Specht was told that everything was actually prepared, but that there were problems with the federal budget.
It could also be that the government no longer wants to share the legacy of the previous government, which apparently includes corona research. On June 29, Specht then received an email that “the BMBF had not yet made a decision” regarding the projects in question. Even now, two weeks later, still nothing has happened.
In a zoom call, 60 scientists who are affected by unissued funding decisions nationwide recently met, says Specht. She speaks of a “crass situation” and sometimes dramatic consequences for those affected. Advertised positions cannot be filled. “Some have moved to another city with kith and kin. They are left with nothing,” says Specht.
A lot of work had apparently been completely in vain, in your funding line alone there were 400 applications that were written, submitted and then also reviewed by many researchers. Specht demands that the BMBF must stick to the funding it has promised. Timely decisions are now needed – and above all, transparent communication.
A spokeswoman for the BMBF said on request that the ministry could “well understand” when researchers are disappointed with less or no funding for follow-up projects. Unfortunately, this is due to the “framework conditions”.
These included the “special conditions” of the budget year, such as the consequences of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the debt brake, which will apply again from 2023. In fact, the Federal Foreign Office has already cut funds for the German Academic Exchange Service.
According to the BMBF, however, there are now only isolated cases that follow-up projects are not funded or not to the previous extent. Current research projects do not have to be canceled for cost reasons.
The ministry also pointed out that project funding is always limited in time. “The expiry of project funding is therefore the norm.” A hint that would hardly comfort those affected.