Review Results 2017 / 2018
In the German science system, peer reviews are an essential component for quality assurance and resource management of research activities.
Between October 2017 and April 2018, the 18 research centers of the Helmholtz Association were evaluated by some 600 experts from 27 nations. The objective of the evaluation was primarily the assessment of the scientific performance in an international comparison. This extensive peer review combined the reviews of the funded research programs, usually involving several research centers, with reviews of the research centers including their institutes and research infrastructures. The scope and intensity of this evaluation process was unique for a German research organization.
The scientific reviews took place within the framework of panel meetings lasting several days at the locations of the centers throughout Germany and included the inspection of laboratories and research infrastructures. The 32 expert panels comprised up to 42 internationally renowned members and spent up to 6 days at each center. In addition to numerous recommendations on individual research topics, important statements can also be made for the entire Helmholtz Association. The evaluations confirmed that, in accordance with the Helmholtz mission, the association provides integrated, interdisciplinary top-level research with a systemic approach. Due to the diversity and complementarity of the research centers involved, a broad spectrum of topics is covered, ranging from basic research to application. In the funding period now drawing to a close, research results of the highest scientific excellence were achieved in all areas. The reviewers recognized a clear advancement in many areas since the last evaluations five years ago. In addition, the research infrastructures were highlighted as an outstanding feature of the Helmholtz centers: they are magnets for the national and international scientific community and provide important impetus for research activities within the Helmholtz Association, according to the international scientists.
In their recommendations, the experts called for the rapid implementation of Helmholtz’s future strategy and the further development of research areas and programs. The central challenge for the entire association is to advance activities in the field of information and data science and to build up more expertise in methods of artificial intelligence, such as machine learning. Within the structure of program-oriented funding, sufficient open space must be created for new ideas, i.e., blue-sky research, in order to initiate innovative approaches and solutions at an early stage.
Overall, the Helmholtz centers have established impressive partnerships with universities and other institutions at regional, national and international level. The numerous joint appointments of scientists at universities and the Helmholtz Institutes, which promote strategic partnerships between research centers and universities, are exemplary for cooperation in the science system and for further expansion. The experts also saw potential for better exploitation of knowledge transfer in business and society. It is just as important to bring research results to market more quickly as the communication of scientific results to the public. In the individual research areas, Helmholtz could act even more as a strategic player, for example by developing roadmaps together with partners within the research areas and thus supporting science-based policy advice. In the promotion of talent, the graduate schools and the successful recruitment of excellent international scientists were rated very positively. In general, there is a need for action in Germany to further promote diversity within the framework of the organizational culture.
The results of the scientific evaluation are the starting point for the association’s strategic planning. Next year, six international committees of 10 members will review the plans for the new research programs and formulate strategic recommendations for the six research areas and their funding, taking into account strategic guidelines from the funding bodies. These panels will act as strategic advisory boards during the future funding period from 2021 to 2027.
The Helmholtz Association is carrying out this two-stage evaluation procedure for the first time and is hereby responding to the recommendations of the German Science Council for the further development of program-oriented funding as well as for general reviews in the science system. Bringing together the reviews of the programs and centers, the future abandonment of interim reviews and the extension of the funding period from five to seven years should make the overall procedure more efficient. The evaluation panels confirmed to Helmholtz the right balance in the process by which the research activities of the 18 research centers and their contribution to the programs were jointly evaluated. Prior to this, the members of the Helmholtz Association and the funding bodies of the Federal and State Governments had defined a standardized review procedure which was coordinated by the Helmholtz Head Office. While the method of scientific evaluation has proven itself overall, it can still be adjusted in individual aspects.