Beyond Horizons - Experiencing European Research Policy

The principal investigator of our group, Johannes Henn, spent some time in Brussels at the center of European Research Policy. Here he tells us how he got there, whom he met, what he learned, and how he brings these experiences together in his daily work.

You spent some time in Brussels at the office of Dr. Christian Ehler, who is a member of the European Parliament. How did that come about?

Besides my work I study science management part-time at the German University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer. In the course of these studies, I have gained fascinating insights into the German university system and was keen to broaden my knowledge through an international experience. So, I was very happy to have the opportunity to get to know more about European research policy by visiting Dr. Christian Ehler in Brussels.

What was the aim of your visit?

Important decisions are taken in Brussels, for example, the structuring of European research funding. The well-known European Research Council, which supports excellent projects in basic research, is funded under the European Commission's current Horizon Europe program. My group’s research project in which we search for new structures of scattering amplitudes is part of this European program. Furthermore, the policy in Brussels also affects the German science system in general, and the Max Planck Society of which I am part, in particular.

My goal was to get to know European research policy where it is made as well as the actors that influence it. I did a lot of reading and talked to various people before I started my visit. To speak frankly, I first had to learn the 'Brussels EU language', but this helped me a lot to understand the European Research Politics world.

What exactly did you experience on-site?

It was fascinating to take a look beyond my daily horizon and to talk to so many people from different organizations. There were people from the European Commission, from the German Permanent Representation and also from the European University Association. The office of Christian Ehler, who is a member of the European Parliament, was definitely the place-to-be as he is known as 'the voice of German research in the Parliament'. He is part of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and he was significantly involved in the negotiations on the Horizon Europe budget. I am very grateful to Dr. Ehler for inviting me to accompany him on various appointments and also for the many discussions with him and his scientific assistant.

Being there helped me to gain a much better understanding of the context of European research. I found it really rewarding to get out of the research 'bubble', even if it was a short get-away. I encountered a lot of ideas and diverse points of view in this process.

How can you apply these experiences to your work?

By changing perspectives, I can see my daily work as part of a bigger picture. The understanding of the political structure is important for my work as a member of the Board of Directors of the Max Planck Institute for Physics. It also helps to maintain good contacts with financial sponsors such as the General Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In addition, I benefit from the exchange with fellow students in science management, as they are part of different organizations, some come from science, some from administration. To share our views is really helpful for the overall cooperation between science, administration and policy makers.

How is it possible to bring together research policy and everyday research?  

We encounter research policy very often in everyday life. One highly important issue is the career paths of scientists, for example the Amendment to the Berlin Higher Education Act, which affects postdocs in particular. Within the Max Planck Society there are several good avenues to support young scientists, such as the Max Planck Research Groups or the Lise Meitner Program. The Max Planck Society will continue to develop forward-looking programs and, therefore, an understanding of the political and legal framework is crucial in order to forward these initiatives.  

For everyday research the exchange with Dr. Ehler also showed me how important science communication is. It is not easy to talk about specialized research topics in an understandable way. Reducing complexity is essential, not only for public relations, but also for science itself. The exercise to reduce topics to their basics and to formulate this clearly often helps me to get new ideas for future projects. To quote Albert Einstein: “You have to make things as simple as possible. But not simpler.”

Thank you very much, Mr. Henn!

Photo by Axel Griesch
May 23, 2022