A German Internet Institute: What will it be? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 22.05.2017
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A German Internet Institute: What will it be?

It's been years coming. The German government will now reveal who's been chosen to run a new national internet institute. The idea is to study the effects of digitalization on society and feed that back into the loop.

DW: What is a national internet institute? Or what will it be?

Christina Brüning, Ministry for Education and Research: Well first there's a bit of history to this. As part of its Digital Agenda, the German government has set itself a raft of goals in an effort to influence digitalization of society positively. And one of those goals was the founding of a national internet institute. So Tuesday's announcement is that goal achieved.

And what are the goals of the institute?

Of course, there is already research in Germany on the topic of digitalization - technical perspectives and social aspects, for instance. But what's been missing is a comprehensive and interdisciplinary overview of the issues, and one that closes any gaps in the research. And aside from all the technical and legal questions thrown up by digitalization, there's also been a need for research into the impact of these things on society.

The digital transition affects us all daily. We've all got a smartphone, we're ordering all kinds of things online, communicating with friends and family all over the world, and this is creating a lot of questions that need answers.

Legal issues seem to be at the center of this, certainly if you look at the members of the jury who were involved in choosing the winning bid for this institute. [There were five bids in the final round from across Germany.]

No, not entirely. The institute should cover a range of issues: legal issues, political and social issues, economic and scientific issues. It should be a coming together of various disciplines.

Christina Brüning: Pressereferentin, Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF/Rickel)

Christina Brüning of Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research

At the moment, for example, we're debating the issue of Facebook and legal boundaries on the internet. In the area of medicine, an area where more and more data is collected, we're talking about big data. So, how can big data help us reach new understanding in medicine, and at the same time, what are the data protection issues for individual patients? How can I, as an individual patient, be sure that I have control over my data and what gets done with it? The keywords there is data autonomy and data sovereignty…

So given this approach, the institute will not only be for research, but it sounds like it will have an influence on public and government policy.

Exactly, that's one of its main mandates. There will be lots of great research. But to use the cliché, that research won't rest in an ivory tower. It's important that there's a transfer back into society, into the economy, and into politics. Politicians should be able to use research from the institute to make better, target-oriented decisions on digitalization.

Tell us a bit about the jury that's charged with choosing the winning bid. There are some big names: Viktor Mayer-Schöneberger of Oxford University, Urs Gasser from Havard, Katharina Borchert of Mozilla Corporation, Constanze Kurz vom Chaos Computer Club … nice to see women in the line-up too. How did you pick them? I imagine that was very important - they would have to share your take on things.

Yes. It was important to have people from all the different areas of digitalization - people how know about the social issues, those who are good on the information technology, startup and internet businesses, or legal issues. So we went about looking for experts in the various fields and then set about trying to get them involved. And it is quite a broad range of people.

In terms of this being a research institute, could you do a degree there from scratch, or will the institute be first and foremost for the more advanced, if I can put it like that?

Yes, well, it'll primarily be for more advanced people. But the German Internet Institute does also have a mandate to educate young, up-and-coming scientists, so you might write your PhD there, and there will be professors who will teach. But it won't be like a university, where you could enroll.       

And when is the start date?

In its first phase the institute will run for five years on a budget on 50 million euros over that time, so that's 10 million per year. And the it's starting now.

What, so there's no new campus that has to be built?

Well, these are consortia and they are all already active in research in the field. They are already doing it, so they can get to work immediately. But, yes, there will be new positions and other things that may mean it takes a while to get going. But as of Tuesday, they can start.

Christina Brüning is a spokesperson for Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

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