Hans Jürgen Kerkhoff (l.), President of the German Steel Federation (WV Stahl), and Matthias Kleiner, President of the Leibniz Association, spoke about the significance of research and the economy for our society.
Germany is considered to be one of the most innovative countries in the world. What is this reputation based on?
Kleiner: Innovation is based on research, especially on our intensive research of fundamentals, which has a long and deep-rooted tradition in Germany. This research has given rise to many innovations and made decisive contributions to many others.
Kerkhoff: What characterizes Germany’s industrial landscape is the interaction among the sectors. The supplier-customer relationship is not merely economic, but the partners also innovate together. This type of relationship can also exist between companies and between companies and institutes, both in the area of fundamental and applied research.
Kleiner: ...I concur. And it makes sense for you to raise this point, as you are also a member of the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research in Düsseldorf – a wonderful and unique combination...
Kerkhoff: ...yes, I think that is part of what makes this region so strong. We don’t think exclusively in terms of value chains, but rather in hybrid networks. And industry is an important driver for innovation in this context. This approach is a significant reason why Germany recovered so quickly from the crisis after 2009. It also ensures that we will remain competitive in the future.
Can this standard be maintained in the long-term?
Kleiner: We can get even better, for example, in the area of strategic partnerships between science and industry. Science has become increasingly entrepreneurial, but I would like to see companies become more scientific. They are often preoccupied with optimizing their purchasing, with streamlining, and they are often very successful – but they rarely worry about generating new knowledge. It is important to invest in know-how for the future in a professional manner.
Kerkhoff: To do that, we need framework conditions that are adapted to the competitive situation. Fundamentally, there must be more understanding of industrial structures on the part of ‘political regulators,’ as I like to call the government.
What do you mean, exactly?
Kerkhoff: We are presently leading a pretty heated debate with policymakers about CO2 regulation. We have to make sure that measures in energy and climate policy do not endanger our competitiveness. One step in the right direction would be to pay more attention to life cycle analyses. Also, the positive characteristics of steel, which are especially evident in the application phase, as well as its recyclability, need to be taken into account.
Kleiner: Steel is an excellent example of the qualitative growth that we need in the area of innovation. Steel as it was 30 years ago cannot be compared with what is now commonly used in many applications.
Kerkhoff: And in this sense, companies are not simply suppliers of materials, but they also provide system solutions.
Kleiner: Which means that it is appropriate to talk about systemic relevance for our society when it comes to steel. I am convinced that we need to consolidate and further develop these sectors.
How can research institutes or associations contribute to this?
Kleiner: Research institutes first and foremost have to provide knowledge. This knowledge must be gained through excellent science and should focus on topics of outstanding social relevance. Science must be there for society. One reason why Germany is so innovative is the consensus on all sides that science, innovation, and market implementation go hand in hand.
Kerkhoff: An organization like the one I have the privilege of heading always has a communicative mission. On the one hand, we have to communicate the industrial reality to the policymakers – by this I mean the conditions under which the economy is producing. On the other hand, we need to analyze the effects of policy actions on companies and sectors and to draw conclusions about how we are to deal with them.
Do we have enough skilled labor that we can retain in the country?
Kleiner: At the moment, we are doing relatively well. Nevertheless, demographic developments will become a problem here, just like in other places. We have to work consistently to sponsor immigration and to create a more structured approach in this area. The rules in Germany are too arbitrary in this regard. Of course, our first priority must be to care for these people from humanitarian motives. But I also see an enormous intellectual potential for our country.
Kerkhoff: The demographic change also poses an important question concerning how we can manage to retain the knowledge we have gained through experience over the generations. But I also think that success draws people. This means that when we have outstanding, fascinating projects with long-term effects, such as electromobility or the fusion of digitization and industrial production, it will attract skilled workers and ensure that experts remain in our country.
Let’s return to the topic of the innovative materials industry: What significance does it have for the national economy?
Kerkhoff: Innovations are developed through the cooperation of many contributors, and when a link in the chain is missing, everybody will be affected. We’ve conducted a current-state analysis which showed that about 50% of all products that we export from Germany are steel-intensive ones – especially cars, machines, and plant equipment. Looking at the German export surplus, such goods even account for about 75 percent. Steel plays an important role in many fields that make us successful.
Kleiner: ...and let’s not forget about renewable energies. Think of all the steel that’s in wind power alone!
Kerkhoff: ...I agree. And it’s in exactly that application that new types of steel help to reduce CO2, for example. This is particularly evident in power plant construction. High-quality and heat-resistant types of steel are necessary ingredients for being able to produce energy in a sustainable manner. That’s an important part of the process we cannot dispense with.
Kleiner: I would like to point out once again that it’s not only about technical innovations in the natural sciences, but innovations that arise from social sciences and humanities also play an important part. Social innovations, if you will. Take the autonomous car, which, technically speaking, is essentially a reality already. But what are the social and legal framework conditions for its acceptance? Who will be held responsible when there is an accident, for example? For future innovations, it will be important to consider the questions that concern the social sciences and humanities as well as the engineering sciences.