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German Science Stirs (with a UCSF Spin), Part 2 of 2

Photo of Volker Doetsch

Volker Doetsch

In the first installment of my conversation with Volker Doetsch, director of Goethe University's Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Frankfurt, Germany, Doetsch made two important points. First, science works best when it's international. Second, the conduct and style of German science are changing dramatically.

Doetsch, who continues as an adjunct professor in the UCSF School of Pharmacy's Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, is helping to make that change happen. "I like to create an interesting research environment. I want more professors around me, but I want them to be independent of me for ideas and input."

This is a very American, very UCSF kind of attitude, and one that thrives best with no-strings-attached financial support, increasingly rare in the United States. Imagine, then, a UCSF-style laboratory, full of smart and energetic young people, led by someone who does not have to worry about money for infrastructure or full-time employees, and you get some idea of what Doetsch is creating in Frankfurt.

With 10 machines at his disposal, he now has one of the largest university NMR facilities in the world. Why?

This leads to the third significant point.

  1. The German government and the university itself consider support of scientific infrastructure their responsibility, and fund it well.

At UCSF, for example, principal investigators receive a salary and a portion of their grant, usually from the NIH, and nothing else, Doetsch explains. In Germany, by contrast, Doetsch receives a salary, an administrative assistant, three postdoc positions, two technicians and 50,000 euros (approximately $75,000) "to do whatever I want with it."

The NMR machines are paid for and maintained by the university. Considering that Doetsch and his team are investigating the conformation and dynamics of proteins inside living cells, and are developing protein profiles that could help determine how potential drug molecules could cross the cellular membrane and interact with their targets, more and bigger machines are key. And if not all wishes are granted, the renewed national appreciation of science means that many of them are. This creates conditions that benefit discovery. Or, as Doetsch says, "Since I don't have to worry where the money is coming from and how long it will last, we can really focus on the science."

Doetsch's lab can also sponsor more projects. One in particular has already borne fruit. It involves a novel cell-free membrane protein expression system. "It is very difficult to get milligram amounts of proteins in any other way," he says. As a result, his lab is now close to determining the structure of one of these membrane proteins, and is training others — including students from UCSF — in how the extraction system works.

As current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, states in the Science magazine editorial, "Our benchmarks are excellence, internationality and freedom. By 2010, we aim to increase spending on R&D to 3 percent of gross domestic product." Already, the German government has set aside 6 billion euros to fund "innovative beacon projects" and, under Merkel, has stated that the "task of government is to create conditions in which [science and research] can flourish." In short, Germany is developing a national science policy that over time could keep many of its best scientists home.

Speaking of scientists, consider this. German science students begin to specialize as soon as they finish the equivalent of high school, which has recently been shortened to 12 years from 13 to ensure that German scientists are younger than they currently are when they finish their PhD degree. (German males also have nine months of mandatory army service.) Does the specialization lead to any significant advantages?

This is the fourth significant point.

  1. Because the science coursework is laboratory-based, when a German student gets his or her PhD, they are done with their "hands-on" education. They can concentrate on their research.

Doetsch is careful not to compare the merits of American and German students, but the differences in their training do contribute to a difference in perspective and, in the long run, perhaps to a longer scientific career for the latter. And it is this mix of ideas, styles and insights that, he argues, makes the movement of scientists across borders and their mingling in different laboratories an important part of the discovery process. It also cements collaborations, which are the antithesis of research silos that arise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, at Goethe University, the students — caught up in the spirit of the collaborative age and chafing at the traditional department and institute boundaries — have organized a "Night of Sciences."

"All the professors here had to give short talks on their work, and it went on all night long. They even had candles lighting the pathways," Doetsch recalls.

Candles might not be right for UCSF — too much wind and fog. But it is always wise to be reminded that in this new and flatter world, where excellence is defined in global terms, science achievement — and the number of international students and scholars who come here because of it — has made UCSF a world university, not just a San Francisco one. Let's hope the illumination continues.

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Interview with Doetsch
Doetsch lab in Germany
UCSF Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry
Angela Merkel
Science, July 14, 2006