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German Politicians Push Innovation

Uwe Hessler (jp)April 19, 2005

The need to promote innovation, research and development has become a key issue in German politics, with both government and opposition outlining plans to improve what has apparently become a weak point in the economy.

Young scientists shouldn't hide their light under a bushelImage: dpa

On Monday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called on German businesses to be more courageous when turning inventions into marketable products.

The fax machine, the mobile phone and modern flat-panel screens have become symbols of German research ingenuity -- but also of the country's inability to turn them into money-making products. Their basic technology is said to have been invented in Germany, but it was companies elsewhere in the world that profited the most from selling them.

Focusing on opportunities

In a bid to jumpstart German competitiveness, the German chancellor called on business and political leaders to show more courage when reaching out for tomorrow's opportunities.

"Nobody says we should ignore risks," he said. "But it would be equally misplaced to become engrossed in constant analysis of what could go wrong and how could we minimize the effects. We need a culture that focuses first and foremost on the opportunities, without, of course, letting the risks totally slip from view."

Raketenantriebsversuchsanlage der TU München
Image: AP

Speaking at the opening of a nationwide campaign to promote up and coming young scientists, the chancellor highlighted a new government package of measures worth 1.9 billion euros ($2.47 billion), that was aimed at supporting universities and elite research centers in their bid to create innovative technologies and products.

He also promised 140 million euros in state support for innovative start-up businesses, and demanded more funding from Germany’s federal states for improvements in general education.

Opposition concerns

Leuchtfische aus dem Genlabor
Image: AP

The conservative opposition on Monday also devoted a symposium to innovation in Germany. CDU leader Angela Merkel criticized the Schröder government for what she called its heavy-handed interference in the freedom of science and research.

"We must make sure that research projects are only evaluated by researchers," Merkel said. "If politics becomes involved in science, innovation is bound to suffer. Politicians tend to support only those projects which have already garnered much publicity and some public prominence."

Merkel's criticism concerns a research project into gene-spliced plants for which funding was stopped recently by the government. Merkel also accused Germany's Green Party of ideological bias with regard genetic engineering. A recent genetic engineering law passed by the red-green government coalition, she said, was clearly meant to prevent innovation in agriculture rather than foster this technology.

Heinrich Oberreuther, a political scientist, said party strategies towards an innovative economy could become a vote winner in Germany.

"A party that neglects this issue will cause major problems for Germany as a whole," he said. "Promoting innovation has become a matter of do or die for all political organizations."

Low self-esteem

And indeed, only about 11 percent of all Germans believe that this country is still spearheading the drive for innovative products in the world.

German pollster Forsa published a survey on Monday saying that 62 percent of people here think Germany is now mediocre in the field of engineering and 25 percent believe standards have fallen below mediocre.

But the Forsa findings are thrown into a different light by a recent Emnid report on "The Image of Germany Abroad."

Leica Kamera Made in Germany
Image: AP

In sharp contrast to Germany's image of itself, the "Made in Germany" brand was given a high rating by the US, Spain, England, France, Sweden and Poland.

German companies do indeed enjoy greater profit growth than their US counterparts, and the country is an international market leader when it comes to innovative fields such as bio- and nanotechnology. If it wants to make lasting progress, Germany will first have to overcome its inferiority complex.