Q&A: How a mid-sized university became one of Germany’s top institutions

The University of Bremen was named a University of Excellence for its efforts in promoting young researchers, women and interdisciplinary collaboration

Until the summer of 2012, the University of Bremen was a mid-sized university with 250 professorships and 20,000 students. This hasn't changed, but being named an Excellence University that year, Bremen University joined the ranks of Germany's top institutions.

Sponsored by the German government, the Excellence Initiative supports outstanding research projects and institutions at German universities. In this way, it seeks to strengthen top-level research and enhance Germany's international standing as a center of science and research.

Bremen University managed to win its spot by putting a special focus on supporting high-achieving young researchers and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration with leading non-academic research institutes as well as corporate partners.

To find out more about their approach, Elsevier's Dr. Jörg Hellwig interviewed the academic leaders at the University of Bremen in charge of devising and implementing the Institutional Strategy:

  • Dr. Rolf Drechsler, Professor of Computer Architecture and Vice-President for Research and Young Academics until April 2013
  • Dr. Achim Wiesner, Head of Research Services

They talk about how the university has changed its strategic outlook, the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in science, and plans for the future. Their story sheds light on how a university successfully launched a strategy that supports the sustainability of science by focusing on its two main components – young researchers and collaboration.

Achim Wiesner, PhDRolf Drechsler, PhDDr. Achim Wiesner is Head of the Research Services Unit at the University of Bremen and is responsible for implementing the Institutional Strategy within the Excellence Initiative. He joined the university's central management in 2006. In addition, he teaches courses on strategic university management. Dr. Wiesner obtained a Diploma from the University of Hamburg, a Master of Arts in Social Sciences from the International School for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, and a PhD from the University of Bremen.

Dr. Rolf Drechsler is Professor of Computer Architecture at the University of Bremen, serving in that role since 2001. Since 2011, he has also been the director of the Cyber-Physical Systems group at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in Bremen. From 2008 to 2013, he was the Vice President for Research and Young Academics at the University of Bremen. Previously, Dr. Drechsler worked for Siemens, Munich, in the Corporate Technology department. He obtained his Diploma and PhD in computer science from Goethe University in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.


With the concept "Ambitious and agile," the University of Bremen managed to become part of the Excellence Initiative. What exactly does the concept entail?

  • Prof. Rolf Drechsler: The concept describes the future development of the University of Bremen. It entails nine provisions grouped into three main themes. The first theme focuses on further promoting the successful high-profile areas of the university, the second furthers new ideas and the third one is dedicated to the development of young researchers and PhD candidates as well as women. The support for young researchers and women cuts across all 12 faculties of the university.
  • Dr. Achim Wiesner: Additionally we put a strong focus on cooperation with the surrounding institutes. These include prestigious research institutes from Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association, Fraunhofer Society and Leibniz Association, as well as the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence DFKI. These partnerships will be furthered by the concept.

Could you give an example of how young researchers and women are supported at Bremen University?

  • Wiesner: Our support of young researchers is founded on our belief in interdisciplinary education, including strong collaboration with non-university research institutes in our proximity. Students can become a member of highly innovative junior research groups led by an advanced postdoc, set up together with our partner institutes. The heads of these institutes often also hold professorships at the University of Bremen. Closely connecting a university with outside research institute is a rewarding approach to take in Germany, and students as well as the institutes benefit greatly from this format. Women's careers are supported by two initiatives in particular. Firstly, at least half of our postdoc positions are reserved for women to lessen underrepresentation in that field. Secondly, we create professorships exclusively offered to women and have made good experiences with that.
  • Drechsler: In preparing for the Excellence Initiative application we also founded the PhD graduate center ProUB, which offers special support for all current and prospective PhD students. Advice focuses on general enquiries, training opportunities with cooperation partners and networking assistance. In so-called Doc-Networks and PhD success teams, doctoral students work together and offer reciprocal support.

The concept "Ambitious and agile" is to be entirely implemented by 2017. How optimistic are you about this target after two years, and what progress have you already made?

  • Drechsler: We have to differentiate between the concept and the Excellence Initiative here. The concept describes the future of the University of Bremen, which is not finalized in 2017. That is only the time when initial funding of the Excellence Initiative terminates. However the provisions outlined in the concept have all been designed with a long-term view. After the first two years, we can say that provisions have successfully been launched and are being developed. Examples include the a new PhD graduate program, setting up a number of new Creative Units, as well as the recruitment of excellent foreign researchers to work with us at the University of Bremen.
  • Wiesner: Naturally we are already thinking about the time after 2017. It is currently being discussed in Germany whether or not universities can reapply for funding of the Excellence Initiative. We think that research politics understand that institutional development at universities takes longer than five years. Hopefully we will be able continue the implementation of our concept in another funding cycle after 2017.

It seems that the idea of scientific collaboration plays a major role in the concept of the University of Bremen. Why is that?

  • Drechsler: Thinking beyond the borders of our University and adopting an interdisciplinary approach to research issues are the hallmarks of science made-in-Bremen. Interdisciplinary collaboration interlinks intra- and non-university research on campus: Ten renowned non-university institutes financed by the Federal Government and the Federal States are located in the State of Bremen. They are all closely connected to the University via cooperation agreements, and they make a significant contribution to the University's large-scale collaborative projects. In addition to these nationally funded non-university institutes, Bremen is host to 11 other research institutes financed by the Federal State. These institutes were established to strengthen and complement university research especially in the natural and engineering sciences. ... Pressing societal and research issues of today can often only be resolved by combining basic research with applied science. For example, the University of Bremen can supply Fraunhofer Institute with fundamental research for its industrially applicable science projects. This creates a win-win situation for both the institute and the university.

Does the University of Bremen use online tools for research and science management, or are analyses based on "manual" assessments?

  • Wiesner: Bremen benefits from the physical proximity of the institutes it is cooperating with. The institutes are densely grouped around our small campus. We know each other personally. We meet up, work and have lunch together. This defines the strength of the Bremen cooperation model.

What role do trends like open access and open education play at the University of Bremen today?

  • Drechsler: These developments are naturally pursued at University of Bremen. Education in particular can benefit from these trends, and we try to actively develop them at our university.
  • Wiesner: Open access is promotedby our university library in particular.Education is "open" in Germany in the sense that it does not cost anything. If one talks about free online access to classes or so called MOOCs, we feel that Germany is just getting started in this area compared to the United States, for example.

What in your opinion are the relevant parameters for measuring excellence in the future?

  • Wiesner: They would not be very different from today. One will always need good conditions for researchers so that they can be free to explore their ideas in cooperation with others to produce something new. This precondition for excellence will never really change.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Jörg Hellwig, PhDDr. Jörg Hellwig is Customer Consultant for Research Intelligence at Elsevier. He has been with Elsevier since 2008 in various roles serving research-focused institutions in Europe. In his current position he helps users to maximize the value of Elsevier's Research Intelligence portfolio tools such as Scopus, SciVal and Pure. He holds a PhD in Chemistry from the Georg August University Göttingen, Germany, and has several years of experience in the Pharmaceutical Business.

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