University Research
Corporate science?

Financing from corporations and other private-sector sponsors is on the rise at German universities. What are the implications for the independence of academic research?
Financing from corporations and other private-sector sponsors is on the rise at German universities. What are the implications for the independence of academic research? | Photo (detail): © Adobe /

Funding from corporations and other private-sector sponsors is on the rise at German universities. This has caused some controversy, and raised questions such as when private funding endangers the independence of research, and whether non-governmental sponsors are limiting basic research.

It is much easier to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps in the year of his 200th birthday than during his lifetime. Navigation systems tell us where we are at all times, even in the remotest corners of the world, and a smartphone gives us instant access to all existing knowledge. Internet giant Google provides these and other services, and commands such a huge share of the market around the globe that it is almost impossible to avoid. Amazingly the very corporation often denounced as the “data kraken” also bankrolls independent research into the relationship between society and the internet. Google has pledged 4.5 million euros to Berlin’s Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) over the next few years. Back in 2011, the tech giant provided the same amount in start-up capital.

Although the HIIG is backed by renowned research institutions like Berlin’s Humboldt University and the Berlin Social Science Center, it has been accused of turning science into a corporate lackey. Institute representatives have denied such accusations, pointing out that Google is only involved in funding, and promised independent research into the interactions among, politics, society and the internet. The HIIG is not an isolated case. The Technical University of Munich also recently came under fire when Facebook, a company increasingly mired down by allegations of ethics violations, endowed the new Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Ethics, founded in October 2019 with an initial grant of 6.5 million euros. These two examples point to a larger question of whether corporate funding threatens the continued independence of university research.

Is the private sector calling the tune?

The German federal states are primarily responsible for running and funding German universities. The “ban on cooperation” limits the federal government’s involvement in educational policy, guaranteeing the federal states’ independence. According to the Federal Statistical Office, basic funding from the federal states amounted to around 466,000 euros per professorship in 2016. University budgets are supplemented by third-party funding from the federal government, other public institutions and private sources. Funds may flow through special state research programmes or excellence initiatives, for example, which provide extra financial support to particularly high-performing universities. The European Union, international organisations such as the United Nations, the German Research Foundation (DFG), university foundations, and the private sector also offer grants that count as third-party funding.

Critics have expressed concern over the increase in third-party funding in recent decades. In 2005, basic funding still accounted for a good 61 percent of the overall budget, a number that had fallen to just 51 percent ten years later. Christian Kreiß, an economics and finance researcher at Aalen University of Applied Sciences, is particularly disturbed by the increasing influence of industry on university research and has expressed doubts about its continuing independence. Kreiß is convinced that “an interest in profit and independent science are not compatible.”

He contends there is also a lack of transparency regarding who is financing whom, where and to what extent. The exact figures are hard to come by, he adds, in part because the German higher education landscape is organized at the state level. There are a total of 426 institutions of higher education spread across Germany, including 106 universities, 216 universities of applied sciences, as well as theological and pedagogical institutions, and business or art colleges. Kreiß calls for a transparent registry, saying it would be the first step in the right direction.

Universities demand more basic funding

The German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz – HRK), an association of institutions of higher education, has pushed back against such critiques. A spokesperson for the HRK explained that cooperation with the private sector was both logical and essential and in no way implied that the private sector set the curriculum or defined areas of research. In any case, the HRK notes, the majority of third-party funding is from public research grants. The HRK also finds allegations of a lack of transparency unfounded: “The universities have established a variety of guidelines designed to ensure transparency with regard to the flow of funds for research projects and the independence of research topics and methods,” a HRK spokesperson said.

The HRK suggests reforms are needed in a different area, and sharply criticises the drop in reliable basic funding as the demands on academic research increase. It argues in favour of a larger budget to give universities greater planning security, along with more investment in modernizing buildings and facilities.