Outside the Ivory Towers

German R&D often takes place outside of the “ivory towers” of universities at independent institutions like the Fraunhofer and Max Planck societies and the Helmholtz and Leibniz associations. They are technology hothouses, partnering with industry to develop cutting-edge solutions.

September 2022

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Perhaps the trend in agriculture at the moment is “smart farming.” As one of the global industry’s heavyweights, equipment manufacturer John Deere is in front of that curve. The US company is employing satellite systems, wireless communication and big data analytics to improve crop yields in sustainable ways. And to create these new technologies, it’s teamed up with Germany’s Fraunhofer Society.

Among their collaborations is the NaLamKI project, which aims to improve the quality and flow of agricultural processes by means of cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. The Fraunhofer’s Heinrich Hertz Institute and other partners are helping Deere develop a cloud-based software-as-a-service platform.

This platform will provide AI applications to help farmers to better analyze crop and soil conditions and assist with irrigation, fertilization and pest control in order to increase crop yields, lower costs, reduce emissions, conserve resources, preserve biodiversity and protect the environment.

The project is a prime example of how Germany’s world-renowned, nonuniversity research organizations advance the development of cutting-edge technologies for industrial and social progress and collaborate with international companies that come to the country.

The Bottom Line

Germany’s scientific research sector boasts world-leading organizations working in specialist fields across a huge variety of sectors. Their excellence coupled with their pragmatic approach makes them a fantastic business resource.

A quartet of excellence

Germany’s unique nonuniversity research sector complements the country’s leading universities and encompasses some 1,000 publicly financed research facilities. Many of the nonuniversity institutes are part of four large research organizations: the Fraunhofer Society, the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association and the Leibniz Association. All receive large amounts of national, regional and local funding.

With 75 institutes and research centers across the country, the Fraunhofer Society is Europe’s largest organization for application-oriented R&D. It is owned by national and regional governments but gets 70 percent of its funding from contract work. Its main fields of research include health, environment, transportation, energy and raw materials.

The nongovernmental but government-backed Max Planck Society has 86 institutes and research centers that focus on the natural, life and social sciences and the humanities.

The Helmholtz Association – Germany’s largest scientific body – conducts research in energy, the environment, health, material science, aeronautics, space and transport. Among the Helmholtz Association’s 19 independent institutes is the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which itself boasts more than 50 institutes. Its self-defined mission is “solving the grand challenges of science, society and industry.”

The Leibniz Association, a nonprofit organization, is a union of 96 independent research centers that cover the natural and environmental sciences, engineering, economics, spatial and social sciences and the humanities

A pragmatic approach to progress

Reflecting their distance from the ivory towers of pure academia, these organizations focus on the development of key technologies and their practical and commercial uses, both today and in the future.

The Max Planck Society’s most successful patent to date, for example, is its Fast Low Angle Shot (FLASH) technology. Developed by the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in 1985, FLASH technology led to the creation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is routinely used today by medical professionals worldwide to examine patients.

All told, according to preliminary figures from the Federal Statistical Office, Germany spent nearly EUR 106 billion, or just over three percent of its total GDP, on research and development in 2020. Publicly funded institutions like the “big four” accounted for three-quarters of that sum. Some 115,000 people work for extra-university research institutions, more than half in R&D. Some EUR 600 million went to corona-related research in 2020, highlighting the significance of nonuniversity research in the German R&D landscape as a whole.

When Germany’s new government came to power in December, it pledged to prioritize strengthening research, promoting innovation and accelerating the transition from theory to application. The government has also signaled its support for more joint funding of university and nonuniversity research.

“Science and research contribute substantially to progress,” the new Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger has said. A former director of the Leibniz Association’s Sustainable Architecture for Finance in Europe (SAFE) research center, Stark-Watzinger stressed the government wants to do more for Germany’s multi-faceted research landscape, for example by increasing government expenditure on R&D to 3.5 percent of GDP.

The “Big Four” of German Research

From aeronautics to minerals and climate science to social science, Germany’s independent research institutes cover a vast spectrum of R&D areas.

An international outlook

One of the main bankrollers of scientific research is the German Research Foundation (DFG), which has an annual budget of some EUR 3.3 billion. In 2020, it funded more than 31,100 new and ongoing projects, including international collaborations.

Among the many important international projects the DFG has funded is the Weizmann-Helmholtz Laboratory for Laser Matter Interaction (WHELMI) in Israel – a joint project between the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. The laboratory develops high-intensity lasers for medical applications.

The Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg recently celebrated another international collaboration: contributing to space exploration by developing and building key technical components for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Thinking green

Germany’s ambitious climate and environmental protection goals are reflected in the numerous ongoing research projects in the field and in a number of newly established centers. For example, Fraunhofer added a new independent research institute this year: the Fraunhofer Fab Battery Cells. It aims to accelerate and enable more efficient and cost-effective production of high-performance battery technologies.

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, meanwhile, is tackling the challenges of hydrogen storage. It recently expanded cooperation with the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg in researching hydrogen storage and the integration of hydrogen-based energy systems – essential complementary technologies for Germany’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Another environmentally pertinent and promising area of research is plastic recycling. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability are partnering with Bosch and Bosch-Siemens-Hausgeräte to examine how recycled plastic can be efficiently processed and optimized to match the quality of new plastic.

“Our institute excels in studying the incentives, determinants and implications of innovation.”

Alexander Suyer, Research Coordinator at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition, provides insight into the German research landscape.

What does your institute do?

The Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition is committed to fundamental legal and economic research on processes of innovation, entrepreneurship and competition, and their regulation. Like the other 85 institutes of the Max Planck Society, we focus on understanding and explaining the basic principles in our field of interest. This means we explore, e.g., the strengths and weaknesses of the patent system, ways to foster innovation that mitigates climate change or opportunities of data sharing. Concisely, our institute excels in studying the incentives, determinants and implications of innovation in an interdisciplinary effort from both a legal and an economic perspective.

How are you financed?

As part of the Max Planck Society, our institute is mainly financed by public funds from central government and the regional states. In addition, the Society and its institutes receive third-party project funding from public and private contributions.

What generally distinguishes the German research landscape?

Germany’s research infrastructure encompasses university research as well as several large independent research organizations that attract outstanding scientists, are well funded and produce internationally recognized results. Moreover, many leading global companies – both from Germany and abroad – have strong R&D divisions in Germany.

What is your relationship with the German government and the economy?

As an independent institution, we provide evidence-based research results to academia, policymakers, the private sector and the public. We inform and guide the legal and economic discourse on an impartial basis, for example on stimuli for innovation and entrepreneurship, intellectual property rights, or competition rules.

Photo: Max Planck Institut

Profits and social benefits

Coming back to John Deere, the need for greater sustainability in modern agriculture – which must balance ecological concerns with economic incentives – underscores the advantages of collaborations between research organizations and private industry in Germany.

“Customers expect low-cost, high-quality food; society expects ecological, sustainable, diversified agriculture – and, of course, it must be possible to manage a farm profitably,” says August Altherr, the recently retired director of the John Deere European Technology Innovation Center.

Altherr praises the work of Fraunhofer institutes in helping to overcome these challenges, particularly the Agricultural Data Space digital platform developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering. The platform provides a wide variety of agricultural data, including information on weather, soil conditions, pest infestation and fertilizer requirements. It assists farmers in optimizing the value chain – both ecologically and economically.

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