“We have grown tall together.”
Prof. Dr. Hans Müller-SteinhagenProfessor Müller-Steinhagen, where did your career take you before you arrived in Dresden?
My route to Dresden has taken me all around the world. I studied in Karlsruhe, where I also took my doctorate, and then worked at various universities: two years in Vancouver (Canada), eight years in Auckland (New Zealand) and seven years based near London, then ten years as Director of the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics at the German Aerospace Center and also as Institute Director at the University of Stuttgart. I then came to Dresden, so did not come directly here but arrived nevertheless via a very logical route, from science to science management and now to this executive role in Dresden, and I cannot imagine anything better than being Rector of TU Dresden!
TU Dresden has made a strong impression in the Excellence Initiative. Not only is there now a second cluster of excellence, but also and very importantly, you have been awarded the cachet of University of Excellence, which means an additional influx of over 135 million euros for the university over the next five years. Does that compensate to some extent for the underfunding by the state of Saxony that you mentioned nine months ago?
No, funds stemming from the Excellence Initiative are clearly defined and are earmarked for promoting research, particularly in the two clusters and in the Graduate School. The monies will enable the University to move to a higher level, both operationally and structurally. But more specifically, these funds are not intended to support teaching, nor can they be used for infrastructure projects such as building renovation. By no stretch of the imagination are we sitting on a pot of gold that is there for the taking, despite what some people might think. All funds have to be accounted for, right down to the last part-time appointment, and have been approved by the Senate and the University Council. In the final analysis, we made an application for specific projects in the usual way and now have to bring these to fruition.
So you're not home and dry yet?
I said in my statement last year that all universities in Germany are poorly funded by comparison with our overseas competitors. On average, a German university receives 8,000 euros per student per year in public funds. The figure is four times higher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich, and in the UK too. Even in China, as I have just discovered, good universities get twice as much state funding per student. Added to which, funding in Saxony is well below the national average.
But surely this new status should open doors?
Our excellence status will help us make progress, of course; there is no doubt about that. To give you an example, immediately after achieving success in the Excellence Initiative, the Minister President of Saxony promised us an accelerated programme of construction and refurbishment worth at least 250 million euros over the next six years. That's twice as much as we would otherwise have had. So our excellence status benefits everyone at TU Dresden. In addition, structures and processes are to be introduced that will facilitate ongoing improvement in the running of the university. Foreign researchers and students have already shown considerably more interest in the TU Dresden, and, as an Excellence Uni, we can probably be more successful than ever before in bids for external funding.
What direction should the university's development take over the next five years?
In the future, I see TU Dresden, which bears the ‘Technical University' label for historical reasons, very much as a full-blown university, having the complete range of faculties. We are actually one of the few genuine fully diversified universities in Germany, as we have excellent faculties in the natural sciences, engineering, medicine, the humanities, social sciences and cultural studies. Future exciting areas of interaction will probably encompass technology and life sciences on the one hand and the social sciences and humanities on the other. My vision is that, within five to ten years time, we will have at least one beacon of excellence in each of the four above-mentioned departments, as we already have in biomedicine and will soon have in semiconductor technology.
But will the development of the strong faculties be at the expense of the others?
We will further strengthen academic performance in those areas that have not yet reached world-class level, as in the social and cultural sciences, where a third of our students are enrolled. So it is not at all the case that we now intend to make cuts in those areas that were not successful this time; on the contrary, we will strategically consolidate existing provision.
You have designated your concept for the future ‘The Synergetic University'. What does that mean in concise terms?
A synergetic university aims to make best use of synergies between the various disciplines and also of synergies with extramural research institutions. That makes sense from a content point of view, because the big scientific issues are no respecters of interdisciplinary boundaries. One example of many that I could give: if you are engaged in stem cell research, then you also have a lot of ethical questions to resolve.
Many universities have synergies in their sights, but it is just empty words for the most part. Interdisciplinary collaboration and networking actually seem to be very much alive in Dresden. How did that come about?
There is an enormous concentration of extramural research in Dresden. We are the largest Fraunhofer location and have three Max Planck Institutes, three Leibniz Institutes, the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, plus a number of cultural institutions actively engaged in research - the State Art Collections, the German Hygiene Museum, the Military History Museum and the Saxon State and University Library (SLUB). We have established a close relationship with them, setting up a registered society with clear governance where we collaborate in making wide-ranging decisions on staffing and major equipment acquisitions. Cooperation between all these facilities works marvellously well, because we all had to start again from scratch twenty years ago - just like the TUD. From that point onwards, we have grown together and also grown tall together, but we have come a long way in institutional terms as well. The same applies to local industry, especially small and medium-sized companies. However, it is unfortunately the case that very few large businesses in the new federal states carry out their own research.
We have heard a great deal about the ‘Dresden Spirit' recently. What is it exactly?
That term was coined during the Excellence Initiative assessment process. The assessors were of the opinion that a special spirit prevails here, hence ‘Dresden Spirit'. It means that, as a team, there is the willingness to address new issues and new structures across institutional boundaries, a certain pioneering spirit. One of the assessors even said that he had never considered it possible that this ethos could exist to such a high degree at a German university. It is a question of mutual appreciation in the first instance. At the same time, we know too that if we approach things together, then we have every chance in the world. If we were to compete against each other, we would all be the losers, because historically there are still handicaps arising from our location.
Desertec, a visionary European project that aims to produce solar and wind energy for the whole of Europe in the North African desert, also demonstrates that cooperation is paramount when seeking to achieve great things. You were a key figure during the planning phase of this project. What is your role in its implementation?
I have been closely involved with Desertec for a number of years. Before my time as rector here in Dresden, I had approximately 250 employees at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and at the University of Stuttgart working on sustainable energy. All the ideas relating to Desertec stem from the DLR Institute where I was previously. Today, I am still Chairman of the International Advisory Board for the Desertec Industrial Initiative (dii).
How is the project progressing? Has the Arab Spring put everything out of kilter?
Yes, the Arab Spring and, even more, the global financial crisis and recession in the eurozone have caused the project to lose momentum. Spain especially has said it now needs to return to the negotiating table in view of its current difficult economic situation. It is understandable that Spain has problems with feed-in tariff subsidies these days, but of course, the issues surrounding future energy policy remain very pressing.
Have all the political hurdles been removed?
We were keen to create the right political and economic conditions in the first phase and a great deal of progress was made. At the moment, there is a minor hiccup with financing construction of the first reference power plants in Morocco. However, they will most definitely be built, since there is already a power line to Spain.
So, the great vision remains intact?
Well, of course. I am still very optimistic that we will succeed in bringing the project to fruition. After all, many individual countries, the EU itself and plenty of large companies too are involved. Construction in Morocco was originally scheduled to begin this year, but that is perhaps looking unlikely now.
Is TU Dresden still involved in Desertec?
We are now a member of the Desertec University Network and are consequently involved in exchange programmes and joint activities. This network is comprised of nearly twenty universities, many of them from the North African region. Our main aim is to train those engineers and business management specialists who will later be responsible for keeping Desertec running. Desertec is more than just a power plant project at the end of the day. The idea is that the entire region should benefit from it, which is why sea water desalination is one of the items also on the agenda. We have some other ongoing research projects at TU Dresden concerning solar thermal power plants. We intend to establish a professorship in the production of hydrogen using solar energy in conjunction with DLR. The energy supply of the future has in any case long been a focus of research in Dresden. I am referring, of course, to the work of Professor Karl Leo at the TUD Institute for Applied Photophysics (IAPP). The new solar cells developed by him to produce cheap electricity will play a major role. In addition, it is essential to use resources more efficiently in the future, for example by improving levels of efficiency in lighting. And Karl Leo is once more at the forefront of this technology with organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that bring an entirely new dimension to sources of light.
You once estimated that Desertec would require 400 billion euros of investment in total by 2050. Does that still hold true?
We made a rough estimate five years ago, but the figure is now probably more like 500 billion. However, that sum is put into perspective when you consider that around 40% of the power plants currently operating in Europe will need to be replaced anyway over the coming years due to their age. The main stumbling block is not the total sum, but the seed money needed to establish the technological basis of this form of energy generation and make it competitive with conventional alternatives.
When will that stage be reached?
2020 is what we previously estimated, but I now have my doubts. It will probably be more like 2025. But even if the schedule slips, I think that we will only ever be able to convert to using mainly sustainable energy in Germany if we establish this sort of North-South collaboration. That would require solar thermal power plants to be built in sunny regions that can continue operating at full load even after sunset utilising stored heat. Solar thermal would be a useful addition to photovoltaic and wind power plants with their fluctuating levels of energy generation.
Thank you for the interview.