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Programme-oriented funding

How does the research conducted by the Helmholtz Association match up internationally? Is Helmholtz attracting the right researchers? And is it managing to retain them?

Since 2004, the entire research spectrum of the Helmholtz Association has been evaluated every five years by a panel of international, independent experts. The results of the third evaluation are now available. The findings are used as the basis for decisions on the further funding of the six research fields, and thus for the Helmholtz Association as a whole, until 2019.

In 2004 the Helmholtz Association began allocating its funds to strategic research programmes, across the boundaries of the individual disciplines and Helmholtz Centres. The strategic guidelines followed here are laid down in the research-policy provisions and formulated jointly by the Helmholtz Association and its funding body – the German government. Programme-oriented funding (POF) considers both the strategic question of what the right research topics are and the question of the quality of the research being performed. 

Complex evaluation process

All the research at the Helmholtz Association is organised into 30 research programmes that are implemented across the Helmholtz Centres. These programmes are the key focus of the evaluations, and each one is reviewed by ten to 15 renowned independent experts. In addition, all 22 large-scale devices are reviewed separately. These devices are available to the international scientific community and include synchrotrons, particle accelerators, research vessels, Neumayer Station III in Antarctica, satellite-based Earth observation systems and fusion reactors.

The third round of evaluations started in spring 2013 for programmes in the research fields Earth and Environment, Health, and Space and Transport. In October 2013 the Senate issued funding recommendations for these three research fields totalling €6.15 billion for the funding period 2014 to 2018. In spring 2014 evaluation began of the other three fields – Energy, Key Technologies and the Structure of Matter. In October 2014 the Senate decided to award these three research fields a total of €6.63 million for the funding period 2015 to 2019.

In the past two years, 419 internationally renowned independent experts, 318 of them from abroad, have participated in this third POF round.

Asking the right questions

“In order to conduct top-flight research, we do not only have to deliver scientific excellence, we also need to ask the right questions about the future,” said Helmholtz President Jürgen Mlynek. “This is the only way we can tackle topics of particular significance to society. The expert evaluations are a great help to us in checking and constantly readjusting our own strategic planning.”

The experts assess both the scientific quality and the relevance of the work planned for the next few years. Other aspects that play an important role are the programmes’ strategies regarding national and international cooperation and longer-term strategic partnerships, for example with universities or businesses, as well as technology transfer, the recruitment of top scientists, and the promotion of young researchers. According to the principle “Today we are good, tomorrow we’ll be better”, the expert teams were tasked not only with assessing the scientific calibre and strategic relevance of the research programmes but also with making recommendations on how to improve their quality and effectiveness.

In the third round of evaluations, the assessment procedure was refined in order to better fulfil this mission and fit current needs. An important part of this was the stricter separation between the strategic programmes and the operation of large research infrastructures – including proton and neutron sources for materials research as well as research vessels – that are primarily used by external scientists. When assessing research infrastructures, experts obviously consider the scientific concept as a whole, the scientific achievements made to date and the technical equipment, but life-cycle analysis and user management are further important aspects.

Positive assessment

The experts attested that the research conducted by the Helmholtz Association shows an extremely high standard of quality and efficiency that is, in some cases, unique worldwide and allows the Helmholtz Association to make important contributions to society, the economy and science.

Dr. Sören Wiesenfeldt

Head of Department Research
Helmholtz Association

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