New Ideas for the HZG
Interview with the Management
2019 was a year of changes at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht: With Silke Simon and Matthias Rehahn, the HZG fell under a completely new management. In an interview, the two talk about what appeals to them about their new job, what priorities they want to set and what tasks need to be mastered in the future.
Silke Simon, Administrative Director, and Prof Matthias Rehahn, Scientific Director. Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
You are both relatively new in your positions. What prompted you to choose the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht?
Rehahn:In my capacities on the Technical Scientific Council as well as a member of the Supervisory Board, I have become thoroughly acquainted with the HZG and its fascinatingly diverse scientific contents and objectives over the span of many years. During this time, I have also seen where I myself would set priorities slightly differently. When I was asked whether I would like to apply for the post of scientific director, I thought to myself: If you already have many new ideas and a great deal of suggestions, you yourself should be prepared to take responsibility to bring them to fruition. Some of these ideas are relatively easy to implement. Others are accompanied by structural changes, which may ultimately lead to a shift in content.
Simon: I’ve been a part of the Helmholtz Association for eighteen years and the HZG is now the fourth centre where I have worked. Starting out as a professional engineer, I tended to move more and more towards management over the years. The position as HZG’s Administrative Director is now the logical conclusion – in a centre that I have known well and for a long time. So we are both new in our positions, but familiar. It’s terrific to be accepted by the HZG staff in such a warm and friendly way.
Rehahn: "We must involve society much more closely in what we do as researchers" Photo: HZG/ Steffen Niemann
You assumed office at the start of the strategic evaluation within the framework of the Helmholtz Association's two-stage review process by international experts. What are the main results of this process?
Rehahn: We are traditionally very well positioned in the field of materials research. We are a world leader in the development of magnesium or titanium-aluminium alloys. Biomaterials at the Teltow and Geesthacht research sites also performed very well. If selected innovations can be successfully transferred into clinical practice over the next few years, this would be unique worldwide. Polymer research, which includes highly selective membranes for high-performance separation processes, is also regarded as extremely positive. There are numerous promising fields of application of the highest relevance: for example, separation of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H2 hydrogen) from gas mixtures, or obtaining valuable resources from seawater. Furthermore, the topic of hydrogen will play an increasingly important role in the future, holistically, from generation to storage and utilisation. We will thereby be cooperating closely with a new DLR institute, which will be set up on the Geesthacht premises. Here, as in other fields, the leading position in structural research with photons and neutrons suits us very well. In addition, the HZG is outstanding in coastal research. Additional strengthening could be achieved if the profile was further sharpened, synergies were used more extensively and unique selling points wereeven more clearly carved out. In addition, it is planned to link coastal research more closely with the Climate Service Center (GERICS). This combination would result in a globally unique position.
What weaknesses did the evaluation reveal? What challenges must be overcome?
Rehahn:One very important point is that we must involve society much more closely in what we do as researchers. This does not merely mean that we must make a more concerted effort to present our research in a more comprehensible manner. It rather means that we should, for example, invite citizens into discourse, where they bring in their own ideas and thoughts. In doing so, we can learn where societal and political priorities lie. What do people expect from science, such as from regenerative medicine? And what are the concerns and fears, for example on the subject of climate change? With GERICS, we have a pioneer who has been engaged in consistent climate communication and shaping the dialogue with society for more than ten years. Materials research, for example, can learn a lot from this. But we also need to become more visible on the political stage, at both state and federal levels. So far, we have only had a medium-level presence in this area.
Photo: HZG/ Steffen Niemann
One central keyword in societal debate is “digitalisation”: how well is the HZG equipped?
Simon: Some processes are not yet currently optimised in business administration. They contain too many loops and repetitions. That is why we have now set up a project to restructure and streamline the processes. We are striving to take our staff with us: everyone has the opportunity to help shape the project and get involved. And I see a great willingness to participate in this change.
Rehahn: Digitalisation has fundamental consequences for science. It will ultimately be a socalled game changer. In order to understand materials and substances fundamentally, from their molecular makeup to their behaviour in practice, we need to trace on the digital track what we have done over many years in extensive individual and arrays of experiments. We need to leave the age behind us when someone would go into the laboratory for an exclusively experimental doctoral thesis and says: we’ll see what happens. We instead need to completely interconnect experiments and modelling together to develop innovative materials in a more targeted and efficient manner by orders of magnitude and at the same time make reliable predictions about their lifespan or recyclability. Meaningful modelling, however, requires an extremely large amount of high-quality measurement data. We have yet to generate this wealth of data and learn how to handle it intelligently. To do this, we need artificial intelligence, for example. To be successful in this field will help decide whether our society can continue to offer the world competitive products in the future.
Does digitalisation also play an increasingly prominent role in coastal research?
Rehahn: Of course - but coastal research is already much further along. Computer models have been used for a long time. After all, people
want reliable forecasts, want to know what impact climate change will have, or know how high to raise the coastal dikes. This can only be done with computer models, so coastal and climate research has long been working with a great deal of computer support. Materials science should be able to benefit from this.
Simon: "The HZG makes an important contribution to the issue of sustainability" Photo: HZG/ Steffen Niemann
New specialists are needed to meet these challenges. However, as is well known, there is a lack of specialists in Germany. Is HZG affected by this issue?
Simon: In concrete terms, this isn’t yet a real a problem. The HZG is still an attractive employer. The shortage of skilled staff, however, is gradually becoming more and more perceptible to us. In some areas, for example, it is hardly worthwhile to advertise a position for a limited period of time. And because the shortage of skilled staff is likely to become more acute in the future, we are in the process of restructuring our Human Resources department and expanding the topics of training and professional development as well as career promotion. As far as the social component is concerned, we have already done quite a bit, for example, by offering more flexible working models. But of course, we want to improve this continuously and provide more opportunities, such as training and development for managers.
Rehahn: A particular challenge will be to attract creative professionals who have a sound knowledge of the latest methods of modeling and artificial intelligence. Such specialists are currently in incredible demand. We want to attract them by offering them a special environment: an environment in which they can directly compare the results of their computer models with the results of real experiments and thus develop their models in a targeted and rapid manner. These synergistic interactions between theory and practice are our special strength.
Photo: HZG/ Steffen Niemann
In Germany, there are general complaints that there are too few start-ups and spinoffs. Is this also an issue for the HZG?
Rehahn: In this area I think our centre has a great deal of catching up to do. If you look around, the HZG has an enormous pool of great and practice-relevant ideas. These should actually create a constant flow of start-ups in the coming years. To achieve this, however, we need to create a greater awareness among our scientists that setting up a company can be interesting. This requires significant further development on the administrative side as well.
Simon: We advise potential start-ups on both legal and tax issues and inform them of possible funding support. Unfortunately, we are sometimes involved too late, which makes cooperation a little more difficult. In order to optimise the situation, we are in the process of establishing technology transfer officers in the individual institutes. They will meet regularly, for example to identify interesting ideas for spin-offs and the need for support.
In short: where do the greatest challenges lie for the HZG and where will there be changes?
Simon: Scientific institutions need to increasingly ask themselves how their resource consumption can be justified and how it can be reduced. With its research priorities, the HZG makes an important contribution to the issue of sustainability – it is personally of central importance to me that the academic world itself is also sustainable, because sustainability is a dimension of quality. In the future, it will become increasingly important in funding decisions for science. We want to prepare ourselves for this.
Rehahn: Society, the economy and science are currently undergoing a fundamental change. In some regions in the world, this process is considerably more advanced than in Germany. This is precisely the great challenge for the HZG as well. We need to completely rearrange the way we work. I predict that the way we work at our centre in ten years will have very little in common with how we work now. We will also need to give up certain research areas and initiate new ones. In order to do this, we need to continually train people here so that they can make their outstanding contribution in a new system with new questions. We should see all this as a great challenge in a positive sense.
The interview was conducted by Frank Grotelüschen.
Published in in2science #9 (April 2020)