Looking and reaching for the stars

Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund, CEO of the German Aerospace Center (DLR)/Photo: Johanna Wenninger-Muhr

At the “Economic Summit Germany 2018” on 22 September in Frankfurt am Main, the day of critical self-reflection with the provocative question “Germany at a standstill?” there was also the question whether Germany is at a standstill in the field of research and development, Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund (picture above), CEO of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), answered: “In research, we need to look and reach for the stars in order to catch up.” Visionsblog.info wanted to know more about it and asked Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund.

Visionsblog.info: Professor Ehrenfreund, “looking and reaching for the stars, also in the field of research” in order to catch up. Can you make that concrete?

Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund:  Yes. “reaching for the stars” means for research to tackle the major projects of digital transformation. So far – as anyone can observe – these processes take place mostly outside of Europe. Google, Amazon, Facebook or Apple are not European inventions. Despite strong companies, great research facilities and excellent universities in Germany, we have not been able to compete with the global pace of the race for innovation in this area. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) defined digitalization as a cross-sectional area of its research in its 2030 strategy. This means we choose an interdisciplinary approach and bring the individual activities together to create the maximum benefit.

Visionsblog.info: Even research institutions such as Europe’s largest research community, the Helmholtz Association with 38,000 researchers, fail to keep up with the global pace. Why is that?

Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund:  I do not want to agree with that. The members of the Helmholtz Association each conduct unique research that does not need to shy away from global comparison. But we must not think nationally here, but have to devote ourselves to the European level. There are certainly a whole bunch of causes for stagnation in Europe. Europe is very heterogeneous and may be more bureaucratic, process-oriented and not as risk-averse as the US, for example. That slows down. Furthermore, it is a hindrance to innovation research that we do not have enough young talent in STEM (siences, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects in Germany and Europe. Added to this are the low willingness to take risks in research and research funding, the sometimes too slow tech transfer and the low amounts of venture capital and incentives for investors, for example the willingness to combine public research funding with private capital.

Visionsblog.info: Why is the publication rate of the work on artificial intelligence in this country stagnating? In China, you said, billions went into AI research. Is it the money?

Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund: The most innovative ideas are today driven and financed by the private sector, such as Tesla, Alphabet, Amazon or even Alibaba in China. However, if you take a closer look, it becomes clear that the basic technologies for innovations based on state support are being developed again and again. For example, look at the iPhone. Ultimately, the only key technologies that make these “smart” are the large publicly funded research institutions (CERN, NSF, NIH, DARPA, etc.) or other publicly funded research (DoD, DoH, etc.). “In fact, there is no state-funded technology behind the iPhone,” says author Mariana Mazzucato in her book, The Entrpreneurial State. Here it becomes clear that politicians are required to set much more courageous priorities, to define and promote innovation work along societal challenges. Since the previous funding instruments are not necessarily sufficient. In this way we also get more scientific publications and the knowledge presented there generates the necessary innovations.

Visionsblog.info: Are children, young people in Germany and Europe too little inspired for research?

Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund: As a research institution, we see it as one of our fundamental tasks to convey the fascination of research to children and adolescents. Year after year, thousands of young researchers spend many exciting hours and days at the 13 School_Labs operated by DLR in Germany. Some of these facilities are fully booked for months. Especially in 2018, with the Alexander Gerst Horizons mission and our asteroider Mascot, there is a growing interest in space travel. Over the past few weeks, more than 22,000 children have visited our space show.I would very much like to wish that there would be much more to do with such activities in order to put young talents in the field of STEM on a broader footing.

Visionsblog.info: One must work together in the demographic challenge. This means interdisciplinary research, climate protection, demographic change and urbanization. Who do you work with globally?

Prof. Dr. Pascale Ehrenfreund: National and international cooperation are essential for scientists. Often the financial burdens on individual projects and missions are so high that they can not be borne by a single nation. DLR cooperates with more than 400 partners worldwide, i. with other research institutions, universities, industrial companies and government institutions. In aerospace in particular, there is a high degree of specialized knowledge, but we also work with institutions around the world in the areas of energy and transport to develop innovative and future-oriented solutions. To name just a few examples, we recently signed a cooperation agreement with the University of Navarra in Spain to work together in finding solutions for current traffic problems and developing innovations for the future of mobility and transport in Europe. In turn, we have agreed to cooperate with the University of British Columbia and the University of Augsburg on new vehicle structures. In addition, DLR is a member of the International Charter for Space and Natural Disasters, which provides space-based data and information to support disaster relief. And finally, in space research, the International Space Station ISS is the best example of what you can achieve if you just want it together. Only in a global cooperation it will be possible to overcome the global challenges.

Interview: Johanna Wenninger-Muhr

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