2018 Research Awards of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

Speech by Michael Meister Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister of Education and Research on the occasion of the Conferment in Berlin

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Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a great pleasure for me to speak to you today on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and this award ceremony as a representative of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Humboldt Foundation plays a unique role in our international science policy. For many decades now, it has been bringing excellent scientists and scholars to Germany from around the world, creating a large network of excellence and trust.

That this would become such a great success was not at all clear in 1953, the year that Humboldt Foundation was established. After the dark years of inhumanity, characterised by the oppression of freedom and the threat to life and limb, the young Federal Republic had to do all it could to regain its place among the international – western – community.

As it was doing so, the Cold War was bringing a new threat to freedom. I should point out that 1953 was also the year of the suppression of the 17th June uprising by the Soviet Red Army, an uprising which, by the way, started very close to where we are right now.

Sadly, we cannot take freedom, international co-operation and trust for granted today either.

Professor Pape,

You have rightly emphasized the importance of academic freedom for the well-being of our societies and for the shaping of our shared future with our partners in Europe and the world. The fact that the freedom of teaching and research is coming under increasing pressure in many countries around the world today is something that should be alarming to us all. Factual debate is being undermined; university lecturers are losing their jobs. There are even attempts to close down universities that are considered politically undesirable.

Science needs freedom. Both science and freedom are indispensable for an enlightened society. It is only as long as the freedom of research and teaching is guaranteed that a society remains open, innovative and successful.

The higher education ministers of the 48 Bologna states discussed this issue last month in Paris. For Germany it was clear that the values upon which the European Higher Education Area is based – namely, academic freedom, institutional autonomy, the opportunities for participation for students, teaching staff and researchers – are non-negotiable. Therefore, we in Germany very much welcome the fact that the Bologna Conference confirmed these shared values and has kicked off a more intensive political dialogue.


The research awards of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation honour men and women who have brought new knowledge to the world: fundamental discoveries, new theories, new insights. 


Advances in knowledge and the resulting innovations make an important contribution to our prosperity. Education, science and research benefit society, the economy and every single one of us. They provide solutions for global challenges, contribute to competitiveness and help create jobs for the future.

The Federal Government counts on excellent researchers just as it does on a skilled workforce. It is particularly gratifying when internationally renowned scientists and scholars like you, the distinguished award winners we are honouring today, come here to Germany.

I am delighted that so many of you have come here from the United States. Even the strong transatlantic alliance is no longer as certain as it once was. It is a relationship that is based on common values like individual freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. Thus, it is all the more important that highly respected scientists set an example for co-operation and trust with their joint research.



Germany is one of the most attractive locations for science and research and one of the leading countries for innovation in Europe and the world. In order to be able to develop freely and across borders, science and research not only need freedom and dialogue but also reliable funding. This is something the Federal Government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood for since 2005.

In that time, the budget of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has climbed by 130 per cent to 17.6 billion euros. That is the fourth largest budget of any Federal Government ministry and represents a clear commitment to the importance of science and research for the well-being of our society.

We will continue this path in this new legislative period. We want science, teaching and research in Germany to continue to be amongst the world’s best.

Allow me to mention a few examples of what we are planning.

In the coalition agreement for our government we decided that we will continue the Pact for Research and Innovation beyond 2021. The pact strengthens the large non-university research institutions and the German Research Foundation (the DFG). We are committed to the autonomy of science. We are developing the aims and instruments of this pact further. We want to advance the dynamic development and strategic capability, intensify the transfer of scientific progress to industry and society, and increase national and international networking.

We will provide support for universities in particular through a follow-up agreement to the Pact for Higher Education.  The Federal Government is ready to put its funding on a lasting basis. Together with the Germany's states, the Länder, we want to develop a stable and transparent system in which retaining capacity and expanding quality go hand in hand. We expect the Länder to live up to one of their own most important responsibilities under the federal system, that of providing adequate basic funding for higher education institutions.

The Quality Pact for Teaching stands for our financial support of good teaching and innovative teaching formats at higher education institutions in Germany. We want to enhance the pact and establish a new, independent organization for good teaching in higher education.

The Federal Government and the Länder jointly adopted the Tenure Track Programme for universities already in the last legislative period. We did this to establish the tenure-track career path right across Germany. We are providing one billion euros for 1,000 additional tenure-track professorships over a period of 15 years.


One cannot help but notice that the environment for science and research has significantly altered in recent years for Germany and Europe.

The competition has grown. Ambitious emerging economies have been catching up with the traditional industrial economies and have developed into strong players in science and innovation. China is the obvious example, but South Korea and Singapore have also made huge progress.


Thus we also need more committed research and more adventurous innovation in Germany and Europe, whether in basic science or practical applications. The Humboldt Research Awards also represent an invitation to pursue such ambitious research together.

The Federal Research Ministry is further developing the High-Tech Strategy for Germany so that research can improve quality of life. We are making it address the following major challenges: the digital transformation and the future of work, health and caring, climate and energy, mobility and security.

We need yet more dynamism in Germany and Europe in particular in the key technologies of the digital transformation like microelectronics, biotechnology, modern communications technologies, robotics, data sciences, IT security, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence.

We will be successful in mastering these challenges only by working together with our partners in Europe. This is what the Franco-German Forum for Cooperation in Research demonstrated again just last week in Berlin.

The Forum also discussed the wise initiative of President Macron and other European Union leaders to build up new European university networks. If we are successful in raising our higher education cooperation in teaching, research, innovation and transfer to a new level, Europe will be able to stride ahead in important fields. This is why the Federal Government is giving its backing to the European Commission to start supporting such European university networks already next year. We plan to provide additional national funding for these networks in Germany. France has already announced that it will do the same. A networked higher education landscape in Europe which provides people with a rounded education not only creates a basis for technological progress but also for peace and freedom. 

Distinguished award winners,

networks are an important source of support for our societies in turbulent times. The network of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation would be impossible without you and the bold decision you have all taken to come to Germany.

Congratulations and welcome!