The Fraunhofer Society

In Germany there are several large research organizations, among them the Max Planck Society (which happens to be my employer) and the Fraunhofer Society. Yesterday I went to the inaugural lecture of Ulrich Buller at the University of Potsdam. He is the head of research within the Fraunhofer Society and the theme of his talk was the research strategy of the society. I thought it would be a good opportunity to improve my knowledge of local (and national) scientific politics.

The annual research budgets of Fraunhofer and Max Planck are 1.2 and 1.3 billion euros respectively. The Fraunhofer society has 54 research institutes spread over Germany and over different research fields. The Max Planck Society has 80. (The counting here may not be consistent since it depends on distinguishing between individual institutes and branches of other institutes.) The mission of Max Planck is fundamental research while that of Fraunhofer is applied research. Another big difference between the two organizations is that while the great majority of the funding for Max Planck comes from the government a Fraunhofer Institute has to earn a large part of its money from contracts with industry, after a short honeymoon period. Buller emphasized that a natural consequence of the need to earn money is that a Fraunhofer Institute has to be run in a way which has similarities with the way a private company is run. For this reason, he said, the director of a Fraunhofer Institute must be given a large degree of autonomy in deciding on the direction of research done by his staff. It also means that there is inherent competition between the individual Fraunhofer Institutes which should not be suppressed. At the same time it makes sense to have cooperation between the institutes and this leads to a certain conflict of goals. To try and address this issue the institutes are arranged into groups (Verbünde) with related research fields which try to foster cooperation where it is useful.

One of the most lucrative developments arising from research within the Fraunhofer Society concerns the technology for the MP3 player which was developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen. It was clear from the talk that the license fees connected with this are an important and welcome resource for the Society.

A point which was stressed by the speaker was the relatively small percentage of Germans who are qualified to take up jobs in scientific research. (He quoted a figure of 12%.) Here ‘relatively’ means ‘relatively to a number of other countries’. A consequence is that, at least within the national market, Max Planck, Fraunhofer, the universities and other research organizations are competing for a relatively small pool of potential employees. He talked about some of the ways that the Fraunhofer Society is trying to improve the situation from its point of view. He mentioned initiatives to set up collaborations between the different players (Fraunhofer with universities, Fraunhofer with Max Planck etc.) and thus better use the available human resources.

Where is mathematics in all this? It is plausible that there is money to be earned with computer science, but with mathematics? Remarkably there is a Fraunhofer Institute which does mathematics (Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics) and it has been extremely successful. The original scepticism of the Society was overcome by a generous contribution from the state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate). In fact the institute was so successful financially that reponsibility was taken over by the Society earlier than originally planned. This success story is told in an article by the institute’s founding director Helmut Neunzert in Mitteilungen der deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung, 4, 262-268. It is impressive that he launched this project when he was already 59. Of course in the end the products sold by the institute do have a lot to do with the use of computers but the real mathematical content is enough to demarcate it from other Fraunhofer Institutes situated squarely in computer science.

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