unizeit Schriftzug

Innovation with room for improvement

How innovative is Germany? Every year, a six-member commission of experts with involvement from Kiel looks for answers to this question and presents a report to the Federal Chancellor that is full of recommendations, of which more than just a few go on to be implemented.

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© istock/Sergey Nivens

Professor Till Requate from Kiel University has been a member of the Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI) since May 2020. After the German Council of Economic Experts, this commission is one of the most influential bodies advising on policy-making at federal level, which is why Requate regards being a member of this circle “as a certain recognition in itself” and he has his excellent and widely acknowledged reputation as an environmental and resource economist to thank for this. Although there are no binding guidelines on appointments to the commission, Requate succeeds his University of Oldenburg-based colleague Christoph Böhringer, who specialises in the same field.

What attracts Requate, who is Chair of Innovation, Competition Policy and New Institutional Economics at Kiel University, to this post are its interesting excursions into other specialist fields, interaction with new technologies and exchange with politics and industry. Added to this is the impression he has gained based on the past experience of the EFI, which was established in 2006, that: “we are heard and taken seriously.”

The latest example of this is the stimulus package launched by the Federal Government a year ago to provide €60 billion in funding for education, research and development. The focus areas for this package, which include artificial intelligence, quantum technology and the establishment of a European data strategy, correspond exactly with the proposals made by the EFI, which is led by economist Professor Uwe Cantner (Friedrich Schiller University Jena). The creation of the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, which aims to speed up the implementation and market launch of creative ideas, can also be traced back to a proposal made by the commission. Requate and his colleagues are also pleased that, after years of consistently falling short of the benchmark, the goal of spending at least three percent of gross domestic product on research and development has now been achieved each year since 2016.

The 160-page report, which in the current circumstances was presented virtually to Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of February, highlights the strengths and weaknesses in recent developments. According to the report, there is a lot to do in the field of basic and further vocational training. Those responsible for such training, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises, are “often themselves not at the cutting edge of digitalisation,” said Requate, describing the core problem. As the commission sees it, if jobs and entire businesses are to be stopped from falling by the wayside, more assistance and incentives need to be provided for this segment, which is so important to Germany.

The EFI also sees bureaucratic obstacles in the way of innovation everywhere. As a particular example, it refers to Nobel Prize winner Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is very successfully researching the CRISPR/Cas system, better known as “genetic scissors”, in Berlin. She conducts her clinical studies, however, in a company which she set up for this purpose in Switzerland. As described by Requate, the process of obtaining authorisation for studies like this is not necessarily more lax there, but it is quicker. While in Germany the Paul-Ehrlich-Institut and also the particular federal state in question must give their blessing, this is managed by just one authority in Switzerland.

As Professor Requate sees it, Germany might get an overall academic grade of 3+ for its innovative strength at present. Briefly summarised, the report’s findings are as follows: still strong on high-quality technologies such as vehicle manufacturing and mechanical engineering, but falling behind on advanced technologies, especially digital technologies, genetic engineering and medical applications, despite excellent basic research in this field. Like in football, where money does score goals despite the many assertions otherwise, the same can be said in research and development, according to Till Requate: “Our universities are simply not as well equipped financially as they are in the US or China.”

There are more obstacles in the way of knowledge transfer between universities and industry – in Schleswig-Holstein, too. According to Requate, it would make sense if there were a lot more collaboration, for instance, in fuel cell technology, which has achieved world renown through Kiel’s submarine building but could also have major potential for cars and, above all, heavy goods vehicles. When it comes to links with science and research, however, there is simply no relevant departmental chair and not even a strategy for this, said Requate. He sees this as the responsibility first and foremost of (university) policy-making.

Author: Martin Geist