A “City of Light” Illuminates Contemporary Research

This article is the second in a series about an Arab journalist’s tour of research centers in eastern Germany. The first was “Eastern Germany Through Egyptian Eyes.”

It is not without reason that Jena is called the “city of light.”  As I looked from the roof-top restaurant of Jen Tower, the scene was spectacular. Jena was all lit up for the evening. But that’s actually not how the city got its title.

Jena’s history, and present, for that matter, have been shaped by light and light technologies for more than 150 years. Today the city has a cluster of approximately 4,500 scientists mainly in the fields of optics and photonics, in addition to 175 enterprises and 15,200 employees in the optical industry, providing an ideal environment for industry-research collaborations.

Financing plays a major role in encouraging such collaborations. “The ministry of education and research in Germany issues calls for research projects which mostly need a university partner and an industry partner. This forces the two parties to work together,” said Dr. Christian Helgert, chief executive officer of the Abbe Center of Photonics and Abbe School of Photonics.

In Germany, industry provides more than two thirds of research and development funding, according to the German Center for Research and Innovation.

“Industry needs the university to educate and prepare new staff. It also helps bring forward the basic fundamental research for new ideas which universities could not afford to do otherwise,” Helgert said. “This creates a permanent exchange between us and the industry to meet our demands.”

Industry-research connections are not new for Jena. They go back to the year 1846, when Carl Zeiss and Ernst Abbe went into business together.

Carl Zeiss, a mechanic who owned a small workshop for production of scientific tools and instruments, persuaded a physicist at the University of Jena, Ernst Abbe, to develop the mathematical foundation for the microscope lens. Together with glass chemist Otto Schott, the collaboration of the trio enabled the large-scale production of high-powered microscopes of consistent quality.

Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Copyright: DAAD / Robert Lohse

From Jena, our group of journalists moved on to Chemnitz, in the western part of Saxony. Chemnitz is dominated by heavy industrial manufacturing in fields like automotive engineering, automation and micro-systems technology, as well as coating technology and materials.

Like Jena, the education and research in Chemnitz are very much in line with the city’s industrial history. The city is home to Chemnitz University of Technology and some independent research institutions that focus on the relationship between engineering and science.

It’s in Chemnitz that I heard about the “energy conservation versus material efficiency” dilemma for the first time.

The idea, as explained by Prof. Dr. Markus A. Reuter, director of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg, is that some of the new products promoted as a way to cut energy consumption contain a more complex mixture of metals than their conventional peers, which affects their recyclability. So devices that are introduced as energy savers might still, in the long term, harm the environment, or at least make it harder to protect the environment.

This perspective seems absent from most energy conservation discussion going on in Qatar, where I live, at the moment. In fact, the government recently announced plans to ban the sale and import of regular light bulbs in favor of energy-saving bulbs, according to local media reports.

Dr Philippe Freyssinet, Director of Energy and Environment at Qatar National Research Fund acknowledges this shortcoming.

“Energy is one factor, but it doesn’t have to be the only one to be taken into account,” he said. “Some energy-conserving light bulbs contain pollutants. We have to be careful with that, especially in a country where recycling facilities are still under development.”

Chemnitz reminds me of Qatar in a way. Chemnitz is a relatively small city with a population of only 1.53 million, that is trying to maximize resource efficiency without losing connection with its mining and heavy industry tradition. Today research in Chemnitz focuses on topics like “energy efficient production processes,” “human factors in technology” and “smart systems and materials.”

Feeling the pressure of the drop in oil prices, Qatar is looking into the future and adjusting its research priorities. A more tight government budget could lead research organizations like the Qatar National Research Fund to revise its strategy in favor of more international collaborations, interdisciplinary research and programs to incentivize the involvement of industry in research.

“One of the first options we are weighing is to focus our R&D investment to specific priorities where we consider that Qatar may have a competitive advantage,” Freyssinet said.

“A second option would be to better involve the industry in projects. This would not only help in co-funding some of the important projects, but will also facilitate technology transfer from the academics to the industry,” he added.

Technology transfer is a crucial topic in the Arab region, where scientists are sometimes criticized for doing “ivory tower” research that is in some cases detached from the real needs of the people.


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