From a loose-knit network to an association in four decades

Over the course of 40 years, what used to be the working committee of a loosely-affiliated community of research centres has become the Helmholtz Association. The driving motivation behind this development was the desire to take assume greater responsibility and the conviction that the major challenges facing research today can only be met by pooling scientific excellence and resources. A further aim was to gain more leverage in the political debate surrounding research policy. Today, the Helmholtz Association is committed to solving the big issues facing society, science and industry in many fields, as the mission statement avows. The Association's special contribution to the research landscape in Germany is programme-oriented, strategically focused research with a long-term scope. Key competences of the Association are the design and operation of large-scale facilities and complex infrastructure, as well as expertise in system solutions and future-oriented research.

Research centres band together

In order to accomplish the first great task - developing safe and powerful nuclear reactors - representatives from the Karlsruhe and Jülich research centres, which were still in the process of being established, met in 1958 with the former Society for Nuclear Energy Management in Shipbuilding and Shipping Navigation (known today as Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht Centre for Materials and Coastal Research) and the nuclear research institutes of a number of universities to form the "Working committee for administrative and operational affairs in German reactor control stations". The former Hahn Meitner Institute for Nuclear Research in Berlin joined the committee in the following year, 1959.

Initially the committee focused on the exchange of experiences related to operational and safety issues, but soon the focus was expanded to include topics that still concern the large research centres today.. These involve questions of strategic orientation, training, remuneration and patent management, which are all of great importance for the advancement of excellent research and its practical and commercial application. It is for this reason that research centres involved in other scientific fields, but dedicated to solving similar problems joined the Association in the 1960s. These were the Deutsches Elektronen Synchroton (DESY), the Radiation Research Society (now the Helmholtz Zentrum München - German Research Center for Environmental Health), the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics, the German Test and Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight (now the German Aerospace Center), the former Society for Mathematics and Data Processing (part of the Fraunhofer Institute today) and the Society for Heavy Ion Research (GSI).

The articles of association and a new structure legitimised this grouping together of research associations, with the aim of avoiding bureaucratic micromanagement and over-interference in research. Today, the government's role in formulating research policy guidelines and the Association's mission to address the big issues facing, science and industry are more clearly defined.

The Association's relationship to the German government is defined

At the beginning of 1970, representatives of the research centres formed the "Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Großforschungseinrichtungen" (Association of National Research Centres), or AGF, and formulated the guidelines that would govern their relationship to the government. Working in a spirit of partnership, the AGF aimed to define the basic tasks the Association would concern itself with; implementing the guidelines would be the responsibility of the individual research centres.

The German Cancer Research Centre joined the AGF in 1975, followed a year later by the German Research Centre for Biotechnology (GBF ), now renamed the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research). In 1983, the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research became a member. The Association saw further growth as a result of German reunification, when research centres in the new federal states - including the GFZ Geosciences Research Centre in Potsdam, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and the former Leipzig-Halle Centre for Environmental Research (known today as the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, or UFZ) - were admitted as members.

Strength and excellence through integration and initiative

In 1995, the AGF became the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. The research institutes came one step closer to achieving their aim of freedom to govern their own affairs. Since then, a senior council has provided recommendations on major issues relating to content and structure, such as the practice of appointing professors jointly with universities, principles of the appraisal procedure and research priorities.

2001 was a significant milestone in the restructuring of the Association. The loose affiliation was transformed into a registered association with legally independent member centres. The core of the reform with regard to content was the introduction of the programme-oriented advancement of funding, which involved a switch from centre-oriented financing, in which each centre administered its own budget, to superordinate financing at the level of the Association. A total of 30 cross-centre research programmes have been drafted, which are evaluated in detail by internationally-renowned experts with regard to their strategic relevance and scientific excellence. The Helmholtz Association is the only research organisation in recent years to have initiated comparable reforms that have resulted in the reorientation of research efforts towards strategic goals.

The reform also gave the Association a full-time president. With the Initiative and Networking Fund, he has an effective tool at his disposal for setting strategic priorities, as well as for promoting scientific excellence and advancing research in key fields with the required critical mass. The strategically-oriented Initiative and Networking Fund has established an incentive scheme that promotes scientific competition. Along with other funding schemes, it also supports the goals of the Helmholtz Association within the scope of the Pact for Research and Innovation. In concentrating on excellence, new forms of cooperation and networking, promoting the young scientific community and the development of new approaches to further innovation, the Association contribute to economic growth and prosperity in our society.

Following the amendment of the articles of association at the end of 2006, each of the Association's different fields of research is represented by a vice president in the newly established executive committee; in addition, there are two vice presidents with administrative duties.

The reforms in recent years set the course for the Helmholtz Association to become one of the most important and highly-regarded scientific organisations in Germany today.

The Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie was created on 1 January 2009 when the former Hahn-Meitner-Institut Berlin (HMI) merged with another Berlin institute, the Elektronenspeicherring-Gesellschaft für Synchrotronstrahlung (BESSY).

The newly founded German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) has been a member of the Helmholtz Association since 30 April 2009. The 16th Research Centre to join, the DZNE is unique in two ways. Firstly, it is not limited to a single location; instead it is made up of a strong interdisciplinary network consisting of the core facility in Bonn and (currently) six outstanding partner locations in Rostock/Greifswald, Magdeburg, Göttingen, Witten-Herdecke, Tübingen and Munich. Secondly, unlike other European research institutes in the field, the DZNE does not focus on basic research alone, but also translates research findings into practice. On 1 January 2011 the Forschungszentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (FZD) became the 17th member of the Association, under the new name Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf (HZDR). A year later on 1 January 2012 the former Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR) converted into GEOMAR | Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel due to the transition of the institute into the Helmholtz Association.

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