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German Science Stirs (with a UCSF Spin), Part 1 of 2

Photo of Volker Doetsch

Volker Doetsch

Clustered atop a hillside about a dozen miles from downtown Frankfurt, the satellite campus of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University shares UCSF Mission Bay's air of newness and promise. A clutch of student housing and a half-dozen or so research institutes give weight and presence to a German scientific tradition that for the last half century, at least, has been known more for exporting its best basic scientists than seeding their success at home. UCSF has been the beneficiary of that one-way flow in the person of Volker Doetsch, PhD, a signal player in what could become the flow's eventual reversal. Three years ago, Doetsch left UCSF after a five-year stint to assume leadership of the Institute of Biophysical Chemistry in Frankfurt, his native city. Doetsch, who studies the conformation and dynamics of proteins, pathways that influence cell death and longevity, and cell membrane expression — among other topics — continues as an adjunct professor in the UCSF School of Pharmacy's Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry. As such, he occupies a unique perch from which to compare the conduct of science in both countries, as well as assess the changes in German science, as seen through a lens clearly shaped in San Francisco. So what does he see?

• Science works best when it's international.

"The global exchange of postdocs from different countries is very important to the future of science. You learn to do things differently. You benefit from different cultural insights. And you see that science can be done in more than one way. I would not be the same scientist I am now if I had stayed the entire time in Germany and Switzerland," he says. For more on this topic, watch this video. Indeed, a quick review of UCSF's current crop of international students and scholars confirms that the global science community is thriving here. Of the 1,400 or so who have chosen UCSF — contributing to the city's cultural richness — 131 hail from Germany. That is second only to China with 224. UCSF-trained scientists also travel the global circuit. Doetsch has two such examples in his own Frankfurt facility, Wesley McGinn-Straub and Homg Ou, who will soon be moving on to other laboratories. While it's true that most foreign-born science postdocs eventually return to their home countries, Germany has begun a concentrated campaign to lure back those native scientists who have decided to stay abroad. The numbers are not huge, despite a spate of brain-drain panic articles that circulated among Germany's thriving newspaper and magazine industry a few years back. (Yes, thriving is not a misprint. More on that in a future column.) The most recent data show that the actual number of German principal investigators in the United States is just 118. "But the issue is one of quality," adds Doetsch. "Some of the very best German scientists are among those 118."

• The conduct and style of German science are changing dramatically.

"In the past, German scientists were teachers first. Labs tended to be much larger and more hierarchical. That's changing now," says Doetsch. Germany has discovered the value of a more American-style approach, with a distinctly German flavor. Proof comes from no less a source than Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has stated in a Science magazine editorial, "We want to offer German science and research conditions that rival the best in the world. We also plan to give science and research a freer hand. The task of government [my italics] is to create conditions in which they can flourish and to provide the right kind of stimulus." Doetsch has taken her advice to heart. While at UCSF, he liked the small-lab model — about 10 people or so — because he could realistically supervise and direct a group of this size. The traditional German model, established in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics, resembled a solar system: one bright scientist with lots of orbiting subordinates. After much internal discussion, Doetsch has patterned his Frankfurt lab on his UCSF experience, and has split a larger unit into smaller ones. "My opinion is that if you have 30 graduate students, you don't get three times more than if you have 10 graduate students. Instead, you get three times more out of three labs that have 10 graduate students each." But don't big scientific questions require a big staff to answer? That's not how science works, Doetsch responds. "Usually, nature is far more complicated than you anticipate, and the greatest ideas turn out not to be true. So what you really need are a lot of people working in parallel, so that some of what they're working on will turn out to be true."

Next time:

What's this? The German government supports science — with real money and a real policy. Consider this quote from Chancellor Angela Merkel: "An important goal of the German government's science policy is to encourage the creative talent of everyone who lives, works or conducts research in Germany and to ensure that their working conditions and quality of life are continually improved."

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Related Links

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