Jury out on Germany's new research minister
07 December 2005
German scientists are keeping a close eye on the country's research ministry after chancellor Angela Merkel put a theologian with no scientific background in charge.
The new research minister, Annette Schavan, spent 15 years working for the church before becoming a full-time politician. She takes over from Edelgard Bulmahn, one of the few ministers who survived the seven-year tenure of Gerhard Schröder's government unscathed.
Schavan worked for, and eventually chaired, the catholic charity Cusanuswerk. For the past 10 years, she has been minister for culture, youth, and sports in Baden-Württemberg. Since 1998, she was one of Merkel's deputies in the leadership of the Christian Democrats. Chancellor Merkel, who was put in the post on 22 November, has a degree in physics and is married to a professor of chemistry.
Schavan's new portfolio in the national government nominally includes research and education (Bundesministerium für Forschung und Bildung, BMBF). Research and public understanding activities such as the year of chemistry and the Einstein year made up a significant part of the ministry's public profile under Bulmahn. Education is traditionally the domain of regional governments and the BMBF only issues guidelines on a general level.
Former minister Bulmahn was pro-research in debates on areas such as the creation of embryonic stem cells, but unable to act against a majority of skeptics in the Bundestag. The creation of embryonic stem cells remains banned in Germany.
Schavan has only appeared in the spotlight in the context of educational issues such as the controversial reform of German spelling rules. Her apparent lack of relevant experience in the research and technology field made her a target during the election campaigns.
'Schavan really knows nothing about science,' a spokesperson for Bulmahn was reported as saying at the time. 'This would be a problem for scientific research in Germany.'
It remains unclear what a change at the helm implies for German researchers. None of the researchers contacted by Chemistry World wanted to comment this early.
There is, however, broad agreement that the ministry will lose influence, as several departments are set to move to the ministry for the economy. Gerhard Karger, an editor at Nachrichten aus der Chemie, warned: 'Overall, one has the impression that the research ministry loses some competences.'