"It's a great thing"

In a special publication of DUZ Magazine, evaluator Professor Karl Max Einhäupl comments on the positive results of the interim evaluation of the three Max Planck Schools

September 30, 2021

Back in June 2021, Professor Karl Max Einhäupl, chairman of the review panel, presented the results of the interim evaluation at the halfway point of the funding period to the Max Planck Senate. For a special publication of DUZ Magazine, a specialist journal for universities and science, Professor Einhäupl gave a more detailed insight into what he and the other evaluators consider to be the special features of the Max Planck Schools in an interview. He attests to their enormous potential if the concept can be made permanent and long-term funding can be secured.

Professor Einhäupl, in the spring of 2021, you conducted an initial interim evaluation of the three Max Planck Schools. In light of the pandemic, this can't have been easy?

The coronavirus did indeed make the evaluation a bit more difficult. The most difficult thing was that it was not possible to carry out any inspections. I missed that a lot and I hope that this will be different during the next evaluation. But we nevertheless found out a lot about the advantages of the schools, as well as some of their weaknesses. I want to add: I did not carry out this evaluation all by myself. For each of the schools, an additional scientist was involved – two women and one man helped to evaluate these schools as experts in their fields. We conducted this interim evaluation during a very early phase. Some successes or failures can be difficult to measure quantitatively, or as well as we would have hoped. But I think that we gained a very good impression – to wit: It's a great thing.

What aspects did you consider to be especially important during the evaluation?

The aim of the schools is to increase the visibility of Germany as a research hub in competition with the globally leading universities. We paid special attention to that. In the area of basic research,
we are on a par with the USA. Nevertheless, it is difficult to recruit in competition with the top organizations. But the higher application numbers for the three Schools show that we are at the start of a positive development – a great opportunity to even further increase our visibility internationally. In my opinion, especially the increase in international applications at all three Schools was an astounding result
– incidentally also from applicants who also had options at other top institutions in the world. What are the special features of the programme? The fact that English is used - but there are also other programmes for that, but this is not the norm for graduate schemes at universities. And competitive remuneration. Doctoral researchers are normally only paid around 60 percent during the doctoral phase, but with an E13 contract, they receive 100 percent. This is a great advantage at the moment to make them attractive because this remuneration is also commonly used in other countries.

In your opinion, what are the genuine innovations of the Schools concept?

The main innovation of the Schools that I and the team of experts identified was early recruitment. Meaning immediately after the Bachelor. On the one hand, this makes it possible to recruit scientifically talented individuals early on and also to introduce them to science early on. Another special feature of the schools is the high level of interdisciplinarity. All three schools integrate scientists from all sections of the focus area so that there is a broad basis for scientific involvement. And another important point is the multi-institutional set-up of the Schools. I believe that this is extremely important, a genuine innovation in the science system.

Where do you see the greatest challenges?

Community building will be especially important. This means that the scientists from the various different disciplines must identify with these Schools. Another point to keep in mind is the participation of women. In some cases, the percentage of female students was higher than the proportion of female scientists. Of course that also relates to the subjects. That might be easier in Cognition than e.g. in Photonics. But the aim should be to create role models for excellent female scientists who can show the young women during their studies: This is what you can also achieve with us, it's not a domain that's reserved only for men. And everyone should listen and find out what the doctoral researchers are struggling with. Ultimately, every School faced different challenges but also had different strengths. I believe that these must be tackled head-on and that the Schools should use inter-school coordination and discussions to learn from each other - this is an important tool to make them successful.

Who already benefits from the Schools now?

According to the opinion of the scientists at the Schools and also in my opinion, the Schools particularly benefit smaller universities that might struggle to compete in the German Association of Universities compared to the larger, leading universities. They want and also can become part of a critical mass – a critical mass which is highly focused on their research field and which therefore also helps these universities to increase their visibility. The impulses for the science systems that we have been discussing for decades will see a significant momentum as a result of these Schools. Especially universities must make use of that.

What is your conclusion?

I am convinced that these Graduate Schools have added a new element to the system that not only offers great potential for contributing to greater visibility internationally, attracting excellent international students to Germany and keeping excellent German students in Germany, but that is also an excellent approach to breaking down the present pillarization of the science system just a little bit further. The major challenge for all those involved will be to ensure that these Schools are a success. And then it will be possible to establish additional schools. One key aspect will of course be to secure financing for these Schools. The team of experts was delighted, and so was I. And I can also openly admit that I started this evaluation from a more critical standpoint.

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