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“Innovation is one of our core tasks”

Holger Hanselka is KIT-president since Octobre 1st 2013. Photo: Andrea Fabry, KIT

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has presented an umbrella strategy for the next few years. The research university in the Helmholtz Association wants to have: cutting-edge research work even closer together with teaching, unification of federal and state financial streams, and continued improvement of their profile. KIT President Holger Hanselka explains the strategy.

Herr Hanselka, things are actually running pretty smoothly at KIT now. The upheavals that occurred due to the loss of the Excellence status have been surmounted for the most part, and the institution is now back in calmer waters. Why do you need a new strategy?

The big challenge is that KIT is indeed a facility since the fusion of 2009, but we have been operating until now with separate financial flows from Federal and State funding. In other areas as well there are still different regulatory guidelines.  Under the title “Umbrella Strategy KIT 2025” we have drawn up a document that identifies the necessary changes so that KIT is actually able to take action as a SINGLE facility and to function with improved quality in research, teaching and innovation.

What are those changes specifically?  

The core tasks at KIT are research, teaching and innovation – whereby teaching was originally only contained in our assignment as a university, but not in our assignment as a research facility within the Helmholtz Association. But KIT can only function as a unit to produce improved quality when there are unified assignments in research, teaching and innovation for all of KIT. In other words, every scientist is involved in teaching, regardless of whether he or she comes from the area of Big Science or from the academic world. And conversely, every scientist can participate in all KIT research assignments. This is also connected to a signal to our financial backers at the Federal and State levels to create the framework conditions for us and with us, so that everyone involved in science is allowed to participate in both teaching and research – in equal measure.  This is one of the underlying ideas supporting the umbrella strategy. 

You have identified energy, mobility and information as the main topics. Why?

The academic world stands for the spectrum of disciplines and knowledge, while the world of Helmholtz is orientated, due to research-policy assignments, to the major societal challenges. In this regard, such topics as nutrition and health but also energy, mobility and information provide the main focus. KIT’s strategic topics have their roots in the history of the preceding facilities. The Helmholtz Centre in Karlsruhe was previously a nuclear research centre, in other words, there is a huge tradition based on energy research. Equally so, the topic of information is anchored in KIT’s preceding facilities: Germany’s first computer science faculty was established in Karlsruhe in 1972. In order to find solutions for many societal challenges, a very high level of IT expertise is required today. And it is precisely this accumulated expertise that KIT is able to bring into the Helmholtz Association. The same is true of mobility research, which has been represented in Karlsruhe with a more-than-one-hundred-year tradition. Thus, for example, the energy revolution can only be a success through skilful combination of these disciplines. This is why we focus on these topics at KIT, without losing track of our research profile in our disciplines.

How will the overall budget change in light of the umbrella strategy?

We are implementing the KIT umbrella strategy 2025 into the financial framework that has been made available to us. Overall, as KIT, we have an annual budget of 850M euros. We receive about 30 percent of our funding from the State in order to live up to our responsibilities as a university, 30 percent from the Federal Government for our Helmholtz contract, in other words, the programme-orientated research. 40 percent of our budget consists of third-party funding, which we raise in competition as third-parties among public authorities – such as with the DFG, the EU, and the various ministries - and we can also generate funds from the open market in industry through research assignments and collaborations.

A fusion is typically justified also by cost-savings through synergy effects…

At the moment we have to do justice to two different household budget systems. The fusion of the budgets is important, but this does not lie within our territory. We are therefore hoping for important course settings from the ministries that ultimately can lead to a sustainably unified KIT. As soon as this is achieved, we can design the internal processes to be clearer and more efficient, whereupon resources become available that we can thus make use of – targeted in the sense of our umbrella strategy – for improvement of performance in research, teaching and innovation.

How concrete are your plans regarding the topic innovation?

It is a significant measure that we have created for ourselves, as of 1 January, a new Vice-President department for Innovation and International Affairs. Innovation is one of our core tasks and it is therefore domiciled at the level of the Executive Board. We consider innovation to mean developments in science that in the end benefit the market and society in the form of products, processes and/or procedures. The innovation strategy manifests itself in results from, among other things, successful spin-off companies, start-ups and licenses. 

But don’t innovation and basic research get in each other’s way in the process?

To the contrary – the one stimulates the other. Science develops itself along a chain of value creation.  As long as we operate within the elementary circles of fundamentals, we are a long way away from the reason why research and analysis are beneficial in the end. That is the characteristic feature and appeal of basic research – the realisation that it is without purpose and open-ended. The farther we develop in the direction of a product, the more purposeful the research.  We cover the entire range of science – from the most elementary basic research in the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry and astrophysics to production lines in our engineering faculties.  However, it is with all respect necessary to design internal processes in such a manner, no matter where we happen to stand along this chain of value creation, that the results can be made available to those parties who ultimately know how to apply them. And this only works when we bring people together with their potential. This is a component of our innovation strategy. So, every individual can feel that he is being addressed, and he can pose the question of whether or not what he is accomplishing could be of benefit to someone at some other location.

But isn’t targeted collaboration between profit-orientated industry and independent research a paradoxical goal?

No. Even now for example scientists from industry are working together on battery research with KIT scientists. The only challenge in reference to your question is the issue of contracts that have to be worded in such a manner that freedom in research is not endangered, while on the other hand incentives are still created for all participants to invest.

Due to the loss of the Excellence title, you now have 20 million euros less per year in your budget. What role will the Excellence Initiative and its successor play for you starting 2017?

The first phase of the Excellence Initiative offered us the opportunity to reposition the idea of KIT, and this opportunity has been successfully utilised. Regardless of the outcome of the Excellence Initiative in 2012, we have achieved the largest of all steps within the German scientific system. Nobody within the system has brought about such a major change – namely, the merger of a State and Federal facility. We have consistently developed this goal further, and have avoided coming to a standstill half way along the course. With our KIT Umbrella Strategy 2025 in hand, I am optimistic about upcoming competitions.

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