Number of the month: 57

Targeting tumour therapies more individually to patients, developing robots for agricultural crop production and finding alternative storage solutions to lithium batteries – all of these are issues that researchers around the world will be focusing on in the coming years. Scientists at universities in Germany will also be working on such future topics over the next few years thanks to a large-scale funding programme, in what are known as Clusters of Excellence. These are universities or university alliances that receive state and federal government funding in promising fields of research. In early January 2019, 57 of these clusters at 34 different universities launched exciting projects in all kinds of disciplines, from biology to mathematics and religion to politics.

Key questions about climate change

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The Excellence Strategy promotes cutting-edge research, which frequently results in awards.

For example in and around Hamburg, where researchers at the "Climate, Climatic Change, and Society" (CliCCS) Cluster of Excellence are exploring many urgent questions relating to climate change: How can global warming be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius? Which measures should cities or coastal regions implement in order to adapt to climatic changes? The research programme primarily covers fundamental aspects of climate research relating to the natural and social sciences. Among other things, the researchers are keen to find out which climate protection measures are more likely to be accepted by society than others. Another question of great interest is how the financial burden of climate change can be shared in a way that people will see as fair.

Experts from 15 disciplines, including oceanography, meteorology, sociology, economics and the humanities, work at the Cluster of Excellence. In addition to Universität Hamburg, participating institutions include the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht and the German Climate Computing Center.

International spill-over effect

The Hamburg-based and other Clusters of Excellence are part of the Excellence Strategy of the German federal and state governments. The funding programme aims to ensure that German universities do even better in the face of international competition and achieve scientific excellence in research. The idea is for this research to spill over and influence the entire German university landscape – and via the universities the whole country: "The scientific breakthroughs achieved by the Clusters of Excellence will drive Germany further forward in the next few years", is how Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek put it when the funding projects were announced in September 2018.

Rapidly transferring new findings to clinical application

Most of the Clusters of Excellence are following up on projects that have already been receiving funding in the Excellence Strategy's predecessor programme since 2007. One of these is the Berlin-based "NeuroCure" Cluster, where researchers are exploring neurological and psychiatric disease mechanisms. "Our goal is to more successfully transfer findings from basic neuroscientific research to clinical application", explains Professor Dietmar Schmitz, director of the Neuroscience Research Center at the Charité and the Cluster's spokesperson.

Working towards this goal are 25 scientists who are based at institutions such as Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine. On the one hand, the researchers are concentrating on neurological diseases such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and epilepsy. And on the other, they are exploring psychiatric disorders such as autism, depression and schizophrenia. To help the researchers develop useable drugs more quickly on the basis of their findings, they are supported by voluntary mentors from industry. They assist the scientists with issues such as project management, regulatory questions or business development – so that the ideas of today can be quickly turned into the drugs of tomorrow.

Excellence Strategy

In 2007, the federal government launched the Excellence Initiative, the predecessor programme of the Excellence Strategy. The goal was and is to support universities and scientists in their pursuit of cutting-edge research. Starting in 2018, the federal and state governments are now providing the new Excellence Strategy with around 533 million euros in funding per year. Of this total, 385 million euros will go to the Clusters of Excellence, which form one part of the Excellence Strategy, the second comprising the Universities of Excellence. These universities must host at least two Clusters and are given the funding so that they can build upon their leading international position in research.

www.bmbf.de > Excellence Strategy