WiHo editorial team: How would you describe your institute's mission?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The Fraunhofer ISI's mission is to study conditions and frameworks that foster innovation, and to make the resulting findings available to business and political leaders. In doing so, we promote innovation, and thus help to improve Germany's industrial and business competitiveness. As part of this work, we also communicate our research findings to the general public. The Fraunhofer ISI is currently studying a range of research topics – including digitalization, Industry 4.0, energy-system transformation and data protection – that many people are keenly interested in and/or concerned about.
WiHo editorial team: What activities of your institute have been especially noted by the scientific community and/or by the general public?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: Given the over 400 research projects that we carry out per year, there are many examples I could cite. For practical reasons, I would just like to mention a few of the recent research activities that have been widely noted both by researchers and the general public. In one study that met with great interest, we looked at how Germany would benefit economically from electromobility. In another, we looked at Germany's digital infrastructure, focusing especially on how little of it has been upgraded to fibre optics. Our annual Innovation Indicator, a comparative ranking of innovation strength in Germany and other countries, was also received with great interest.
WiHo editorial team: Regarding the status quo of research on higher education and science in Germany: In what areas is such research especially strong? In what areas does it still need to improve?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: I think that Germany's research on higher education and science is thriving. We have that research to thank for raising awareness about how education, research and development are centrally important for a highly innovative and economically strong country such as Germany, i.e. about the comprehensive impact that education and R&D have. Many companies now understand the significance of research and its potential to give them advantages in highly competitive markets. And many companies have either established their own R&D departments or begun cooperating with institutions such as the Fraunhofer ISI. What we perhaps still need is an intensive discussion about how the framework conditions for research have changed over the past 10 to 15 years and how those conditions can be improved. I'll give you a specific example of what I mean: Higher education enrolments have been increasing sharply, but the sizes and capacities of higher education teaching staffs – and the budgets of research institutions and universities – have not kept pace with that growth. We need to make efforts in these areas, to ensure that Germany does not fall behind internationally.
WiHo editorial team: What topics do you think will be central in research on higher education and science in the coming years?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The issue of how to improve the links between research, teaching and professional qualifications will surely be an important topic. In that context, greater attention should be paid especially to qualifications, i.e. to how well our scientific training and education prepare people for careers. This is particularly relevant in connection with increasing enrolments. While enrolment growth is basically a positive development, it focuses attention on the issue of which occupations actually need to be tied to college degrees and which ones do not. This is relevant, for example, in that the average salary a given occupation pays can increase as the percentage of college graduates working in the occupation increases. For this reason, and many others, we need to intensify our research on the interrelationships between higher education and occupations.
WiHo editorial team: What especially appealed to you in the opportunity to become head of this institute?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: That would be one of the things that, as it turned out, I now especially like about my work at the Fraunhofer ISI: the opportunity to link my scientific research with practical applications. Our research findings enter into companies' daily operational routines. They help improve companies' structures and workflows and help them strengthen their strategic orientations with regard to emerging trends. In addition, policy-makers act on many of our innovation-policy recommendations, thereby improving the framework conditions for innovation. I find that exciting and gratifying.
WiHo editorial team: Currently, we are seeing a strong trend in which more and more people are enrolling in higher education programmes. In addition, the numbers of study programmes being offered have grown rapidly in the past few years. Can you explain these trends from your perspective as a researcher who studies the higher education and science sectors?
Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: There are various reasons for them. First of all, we have to understand that the numbers of young people earning the Abitur higher education entrance qualification have increased sharply. This can be partly attributed to the generational encouragement provided by the growing numbers of parents who themselves have earned an Abitur and/or a college diploma. Another reason why more young people are going on to college is that more and more employers are expecting applicants to have a college degree – even for occupations that used to be open to applicants without degrees. Furthermore, student enrolments are growing, and more and more study programmes are being offered, because young people's career paths and biographies keep getting more and more complex, and more and more diversified overall. People change occupations and career directions much more often now than they used to.