• Dr Anja Sommerfeld, Dr Gregor Hofmann, BR50, Brain City Berlin

    Getting the Best out of Berlin as a Science Hub

BR50 stands for Berlin Research 50. The initiative of Berlin’s non-university research institutes was founded in February 2020. As the name suggests, the association currently has around 50 member institutions. It combines expertise from the research areas of health, energy, artificial intelligence, sustainability, materials, migration, politics, economics, culture, humanities and many other topics. Dr Anja Sommerfeld and Dr Gregor Hofmann, responsible for the Berlin Research 50 offices, give an insight into the association’s objectives and work in this Brain City interview.

Dr Hofmann, Dr Sommerfeld, why was the Berlin Research 50 initiative brought to life? 

Gregor Hofmann: We consider Berlin to be an extremely diversified and institutionally colourful bouquet of non-university research institutes. These include the Leibniz Association and Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres and other institutes such as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the Centre Marc Bloch and the Zuse Institute Berlin. Of the more than 70 non-university research institutes in Berlin, approximately 50 are involved in BR50. The research conducted by these institutes is extremely relevant and addresses modern technological, ecological and societal challenges.

Ana Sommerfeld: At the same time, these institutes and centres are home to excellent researchers. The BR50 members are committed to working together more closely, establishing new forms of interdisciplinary cooperation and identifying synergies together: all in the name of enhancing Berlin’s reputation as a European science hub.

What benefits do Berlin’s non-university research institutes bring - and what makes them so attractive to top researchers from all around the world?

Gregor Hofmann: The wide variety of disciplines represents huge potential for Berlin. The proximity to Berlin’s universities is also essential - this is incredibly useful for scientific institutes and research in the city. Networking and exchange among researchers from different disciplines outside of their typical bubble inspires an unconventional way of thinking. This creates new ideas for research projects and innovations.

Anja Sommerfeld: Berlin also has a strong and flourishing start-up scene that is closely linked to the scientific institutes. The overall package, which makes Berlin a hub for culture, quality of life and scientific excellence, is unique and makes the city appealing as a research location for international scientists. It attracts the best minds to Berlin.

What is the goal of the BR50 association? 

Anja Sommerfeld: The goal is to prevent the pillarisation of the scientific system, establish new forms of collaboration in Berlin and work together to create the optimum conditions for top-level research. To achieve this, Berlin must tap into the potential that the unique diversity of its scientific disciplines offers. The development of the city into an internationally recognised science hub increases the appeal of the capital and strengthens Berlin’s standings against other scientific locations. However, this can only be achieved collectively with all those involved in research and science. BR50 and its member institutes are therefore committed to working closely with its partners at the BUA and other universities when it comes to preparing the Excellence Initiative and promoting younger generations of scientists. The main thing is that we mustn’t stop at the city’s borders if we want to get the best out of Berlin as a science hub. There are plenty of outstanding research institutes in the state of Brandenburg, too.

What has BR50 achieved so far?

Gregor Hofmann: Generally speaking, the scientific network of institutes is developing well and lively exchanges are taking place. We have established flexible structures in this regard: in four disciplinary units, the institutes network across broadly defined disciplinary areas. This interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged through so-called interest groups (IGs). For example, at the end of 2021 we were able to bring a number of researchers from Berlin together as part of a workshop on the topic of ‘Artificial Intelligence in Research’. At this workshop, the entire scope of this research topic was discussed in Berlin, from basic research and the use of AI and machine-based learning in material research, medicine and the transport sector to sociopolitical questions regarding artificial intelligence. The topic of AI is now being developed further by a BR50 interest group.

Anja Sommerfeld: BR50 is also increasingly being seen as a port of call for university requests, public queries and science policy issues. We enter into dialogue with the public via events, such as the Berlin Science Week. At the start of 2022, BR50 also launched its own podcast in which we controversially highlight critical topics from the field of research: “Berlin Research – Forschung in Berlin”. BR50 is also in discussions with the Senate Department and Berlin’s political scene: at the start of the pandemic, BR50 formed part of the Corona Taskforce at Berlin’s centre of science, which advises the Senate Department. In September 2021, we also articulated the issue of research in Berlin in a joint position paper. In February, BR50 presented itself at a research committee hearing at the parliament building in Berlin.

Who can become a BR50 member - and is 50 a fixed number? 

Gregor Hofmann: No, all non-university research institutes or facilities with offices or a branch in Berlin and which meet the requirements of scientific quality assurance can become a member. A guest status is also possible. We are currently working tirelessly on formalising the association and are aiming to form a non-profit association. We hope to complete this process by the middle of the year.

What role do the previously mentioned interest groups play in BR50’s work?

Anja Sommerfeld: In addition to disciplinary based units, the IGs provide a cross-disciplinary platform. This enables current issues to be dealt with quickly and in an agile way. A handful of IGs have been formed to date that focus on the strategic development of BR50 and Berlin as a city of science, for example. The ‘International’ IG was established to help BR50 appeal to international scientists and make arriving in Berlin easier for researchers. It also deals with matters such as dual careers, something Berlin definitely needs to catch up on. The interest groups are therefore an important medium for promoting collaboration between institutes at various levels, discussing experiences and using synergies. Finally, we want to make it easy and accessible for members of research institutes to interact with one another, benefit from this exchange and develop new ideas.

How does BR50 work with the Berlin University Alliance (BUA)?

Gregor Hofmann: Topics such as further education, dual careers and scientific and non-scientific careers affect Berlin as a whole. BR50 is therefore in discussions with the BUA and politics. The association coordinates with various working areas of the BUA to identify further synergies. One example is the partnership with the Berlin Leadership Academy. The goal here is to open up further education and training programmes to participants from non-university research institutes. Another example is our collaboration with the Oxford–Berlin Research Partnership on topics such as internationalisation and research cooperation.

The interests of international researchers is a focus for BR50. To what extent is the association currently supporting scientists from Ukraine?  

Gregor Hofmann: The impacts of the Russian invasion in Ukraine on Berlin and science as a whole will preoccupy us for a long time to come. With two responses, the BR50 coordinators showed their solidarity with the people over there and those who want open scientific and cultural exchange in both Ukraine and Russia. BR50 supported efforts early on to promote discourse and network people within the institutes who could support Ukrainian refugee researchers with fund applications, for example. BR50 primarily coordinates and collaborates information here without duplicating structures.

Furthermore, various BR50 institutes have been developing programmes together with partners or their corresponding umbrella research organisations to support Ukrainian refugee researchers, at least temporarily. Some institutes with spare capacity have offered guest rooms to these refugees. Others are working on building networking opportunities for research refugees. At the same time, we provide BR50 members with an exchange forum on ongoing activities. We are also in regular contact with the corresponding working levels at the BUA. All of the latest information from the BR50 institutes regarding services and programmes is available on our website under the section ‘IG Ukraine’.

Anja Sommerfeld: What’s more, it’s not just about offering support now. Long-term prospects need to be established for the refugee scientists that stay here. And it’s about supporting those who want to return to their home country. The scientific institutes and universities will need to be rebuilt, research work set up again and science promoted that is free from repression. The last point doesn’t just apply to research in Ukraine, but also in Russia and all other countries governed by authoritarian regimes. BR50 has also covered this topic in one of its podcast episodes.

Interdisciplinarity and networking are not just BR50 approaches but also characteristics of Berlin as a science hub. Are there any stones that still remain unturned? 

Anja Sommerfeld: The scientific system in German is characterised by heavy pillarisation. This isn’t the case in other countries and it is often difficult for outsiders to understand the highly complex system. These create obstacles when it comes to building partnerships with international scientific institutes or associations. Germany therefore needs to do better at making these existing structures more comprehensible and aim to simplify them in the long term.

Gregor Hofmann: Particularly as the structures are becoming more complex. One example of this is the joint appointment of professors. It’s a key tool for interlinking research and teaching at non-university institutes and universities - and for attracting outstanding international researchers to come here. In terms of Germany and Berlin in particular as a city of science and innovation, it would be extremely helpful if research findings were communicated more strongly to the public and in economic value chains. We are very excited for the planned initiatives in this area. (vdo)



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