Interview with Bettina Stark-Watzinger

Federal Minster of Education and Research

“Strong financial support is needed”

For the first time since 1965, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is in charge of both the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Research in Germany. The new Minister of Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, talks about her ambitions, her curiosity and her plans for research in Germany.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, Federal Minster of Education and Research
© Thomas Trutschel/photothek/imago images
Bettina Stark-Watzinger, 53, was sworn in as Federal Minster of Education and Research on December 8. Prior to her career in politics, the economics graduate was managing director of what is now the Leibniz Institute for Financial Market Research.

Ms. Stark-Watzinger, your motto is: “The future belongs to those who take action.” In terms of the future, which tasks will you tackle first as Minister of Education and Research?

Bettina Stark-Watzinger: As a coalition, we are keen to make more progress, and education and research have a key role to play in this regard, as they are the most significant catalysts for progress in our country. It is my ambition to build on what has been achieved so far and to proceed quickly with launching the projects in the coalition agreement that are in my area.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the need for modernization in the education sector. It is therefore of particular importance to me that the Digital Pact for Schools is fast-tracked and bureaucratic hurdles are removed. The German Federal Training Assistance Act (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz, BAföG) is to be reformed and the dependency on parents reduced. And with our “Startchancen” program, we aim to provide additional support to those children and young people who need it most. It is only through research and transferring results into practice that we can address these various challenges. Action is needed in the areas of top-class research, data and the relevant institutions.

Prior to your political career, you were the managing director of a research institute. What have you taken from that role to your new job?

During that time, I gained a deep insight into the daily work of researchers and developed great respect for the work they do. Their curiosity continues to inspire me every day. I have resolved to maintain this level of curiosity, too. As an economist, it was only natural for me to work in financial research, where I feel at home. In addition, I have experienced firsthand how chal­lenging it is to make research possible in the first place, to guide it to a successful outcome and to ensure that it is financed in a sustainable manner. This will be of benefit to me now as Federal Minister of Research. For example, it is important to me that a balance is struck between base funding and project funding. Base fund­ing must not be sacrificed in favor of project funding.

We are about to go from the year of crisis that was 2021 into 2022, a year that is again starting off with a crisis. What role do you expect research to play in making Germany more resilient?

There is already outstanding work being done here in the field of science, ranging from health to labor to climate research. First of all, however, it is our respon­sibility in politics to make our society more resilient, and I mean that in the broadest sense. Resilience is not just about quickly and successfully coping with a specific pandemic situation or extreme weather event; it is about making Germany as a whole more resilient. This applies to the supply of energy and raw materials and of course also to global competitiveness in general. This is the only way for us to safeguard our future viability and opportunities in the long term. That is why the new German federal government plans to further extend the sovereignty of Germany and Europe in this regard. We want to be able to overcome this crisis and future crises quickly and in a responsible manner. Research can help us to do so by identifying risks as early as possible, devising possible solutions in advance and putting these solutions to the test. My expectation is that research will continue to provide the basis on which we make evi­dence-based political decisions, even when under enormous time pressure in ongoing emergency situations. It is therefore very important to me to direct research funding towards making promising innovations fea­sible, starting with basic research, followed by applied research and extending to experimental devel­opment. An important prerequisite for this innovative strength is an openness to technology. Also, during the pandemic, we were able to find a scientific solution quickly because we were able to draw on relevant basic research. We therefore want to continue to pro­vide extensive support for self-initiated basic research that is driven by scientific curiosity. My aspiration is for us to become world leaders and even attain Nobel Prize standard. Emerging green tech­nologies that provide climate-neutral energy sources and enable resource-efficient management will play a key role. I expect us to achieve scientific breakthroughs here in the coming years that will make Germany a global pioneer of technology in the areas of climate, energy and the circular economy.

It seems like congratulations are in order: Now that the FDP is in charge of both ministries for the first time since 1965, you’re on good terms with the Minister of Finance. Why does research need increased financial support?

In view of the challenges facing our country, such as digitalization, changing demographics and climate change, strong financial support is needed for increased innovation, competitiveness and climate-neutral prosperity. That is why we have ring-fenced a target of 3.5 percent in the coalition agree­ment. I would like this support to be used to achieve the scientific advances that we urgently need.

We can also use it to create opportunities. I see a particular need for action in terms of achieving our climate and sustainability targets. Furthermore, international competition will continue to intensify in key technology areas such as artificial intelligence or quantum technologies. Germany needs to and wants to become a significant player in this changing global landscape and to further expand its technological sovereignty at a European level. We want to leverage the global visibility that Germany has gained through the development of the first mRNA vaccine to become the leading location for biotechnology internationally. However, we cannot generate this support for research through extra funding alone. By carrying out regular and comprehensive impact reviews, we will also assess the effectiveness and efficiency of government measures in general and create new opportunities for growth.

For the FDP — and for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, too − climate protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. The transition of the energy and transport sector and the circular economy are once again the hot topics for our research institute in this issue of the Fraunhofer maga­zine. What do you plan to do to speed up the application and transfer of research findings to industry?

Germany is in a good starting position. However, we need to significantly improve the link between science and industry and the transfer of results into practice. For me, this transfer is not a one-way street leading from academic research to industry, but a continuous loop. This means that those whose job it is to apply the research results at the end or to refine prototypes should be involved in the research process from the start. These people may be experts from industry but could also be professional users such as doctors, or private users, i.e. ordinary citizens. One area of priority will be the establishment and development of the German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI), which fosters social and technolog­ical innovation, in particular at universities of applied sciences and in small- and medium-sized universities, in collaboration with start-ups, SMEs and social and public organizations, among others. We will continue to create innovative regions based on the British model and to avail of and expand the scope of activity provided for by national and European law. In this context, I am committed to a mission-based research policy that involves all stakeholders at an early stage, particularly the eventual users of the product. We will take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digita­lization and leverage the potential of data in a targeted manner. Federal innovation funding should be made consistently available for societal, social and ecological innovation projects.