Ursula Staudinger at Congress for University Innovation 2021

On June 14, 2021, the Congress for University Innovation 2021 took place in the Amerikahaus in Munich with high-ranking experts from politics, science and business. Together, they discussed the core elements of a future-oriented university system and wanted to set impulses for political decisions.

Panel discussion at the Congress for University Innovation 2021 © Andreas Gebert

The event – with an audience on site – was organized as a “hybrid future workshop” by the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art, the Heinz Nixdorf Foundation and the “Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft”. Around 600 interested people took part. Together with Prof. Dr. Peter Frankenberg, Dr. Muriel Helbig and Prof. Dr. Rolf Tarrach Siegel, Prof. Dr. Ursula Staudinger participated in the panel discussion on internal university management. The focus was on the comparison of governance models and the question of power.

More participation for a variety of perspectives

“The strength of the university in its autonomy lies in the freedom of teaching and research – both in its smallest unit and in the aggregate as an institution,” said Staudinger. Through participatory processes and a change in the university culture at TU Dresden, she wants to contribute to turning the nucleus of autonomy – the professors – into agents for the future of the entire institution. “It not only sounds difficult, it is difficult,” she reported. It meant to stay in constant conversation with different status groups and hierarchy levels. The aim was to use the resulting diversity of perspectives as a strength and innovation driver.

Ursula Staudinger at the Congress for University Innovation 2021 © Andreas Gebert

An important aspect was also an existing error culture and the associated willingness to take risks. “We haven’t learned that making a mistake or failing is the beginning of success,” she said. This had to be carried into the institution much more strongly, because in Germany, and especially at universities, people were still more risk averse.

Business intelligence for further development

“If we want to improve our strategy and control capabilities, we have to develop systematic business intelligence,” Staudinger continued. The universities could only develop further if they had permanent access to the most important information at all times. It was not just about classic performance parameters as they were used at the universities of excellence, but about individual control parameters against which one would like to be measured.

“To define and anchor higher education and research as a public good should be of great value to us,” emphasized Staudinger. It was important that universities have planning security from public sponsors. However, it should not be about full financing. “I believe that there is also an innovative strength when we develop further sources of funding as a university.” In addition to working together with commercial enterprises, this also included constructive cooperation with society in order to open up new financing opportunities and, at the same time, to assume responsibility as an active participant in civil society.

The range of topics at the Congress for University Innovation 2021 was broad. Experts from several federal states as well as the federal government answered numerous questions during the panel discussions in the morning and parallel forums in the afternoon. In view of the upcoming federal election in autumn, the political framework conditions required for universities to thrive as places for innovation were repeatedly discussed. A summary of the results of the congress will be published in autumn 2021.

#HTF2021: Strengthen innovation

Germany is a highly innovative country. But when it comes to digitization or start-ups in research and knowledge-intensive areas, there is a need for action. At the results conference of the Hightech-Forum 2021 recommendations for an innovation strategy were presented to Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek.

Opinion leaders from science, business and society presented ideas and suggestions for a future innovation strategy of the federal government. They also discussed several key topics, including 1. resilience, sovereignty and openness, 2. strengthening innovative forces in society and 3. local initiatives and co-creation. Together with Dr. Tina Ruseva, Founder and Managing Director of Mentessa, Adriana Groh, Director of the Prototype Fund, and Johannes Oswald, Managing Director of Oswald Elektromotoren, Ursula M. Staudinger took part in the online panel discussion about strengthening innovative forces.

Solutions to global challenges

Using a few examples from the TU Dresden, which views itself as a globally oriented and regionally anchored top university for the 21st century, Staudinger explained how universities can strengthen the German innovation system. “Thanks to excellent and broad-based interdisciplinarity at eye level, we can help develop solutions for the very complex problems of our time,” she said. She mentioned global challenges such as the climate crisis, digital transformation and sovereignty as well as demographic change.

Panel discussion at the Hightech-Forum 2021 © BILDSCHÖN / Boris Trenkel

According to Staudinger, a pioneering innovation exchange is already taking place between the university and numerous companies. There are around 20 spin-offs per year, 15 other companies use the university’s patents every year to launch new products and services, and around 2,000 companies are involved in various TUD research projects. “We’re not just doing spin-offs, but also spin-ons,” reported Staudinger.

In addition, it is crucial to promote the first critical and risky phase of start-ups in a more targeted manner. In order to bring innovative research results even better into business implementation, the TU Dresden will therefore set up its own investment fund.

Lifelong studying

“It is very important for us to closely link technical innovation with social innovation,” Staudinger continued. It is about finding new forms of work organization and personnel development in order to enable and promote innovations – with and for people.

Another aspect of social innovation is lifelong studying. “We live in a society of longer lives,” emphasized Staudinger. “It is now up to us to use the years gained in their productive and innovative strength.” After an initial educational phase at the beginning of life, it must also be possible later to return to the university again or to go there for the first time. New content and new learning formats are needed at universities so that people, for example in their 40s or 50s, can still change their professional orientation.

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Work matters: why learning on the job is key for healthy aging

How the nature of work affects the human aging process over a lifetime has received little attention until now. A recent Psychology and Aging piece titled “Novel Information Processing at Work Across Time Is Associated with Cognitive Change in Later Life: A 14-Year Longitudinal Study” by Ursula Staudinger, Yan-Liang Yu and Bin Cheng sheds new light on the interplay between work conditions and adult development. The authors found that exposure to more novel processing at work (NPW) across time attenuates cognitive decline. Their findings are an important contribution to designing work in a way that also promotes workers’ cognitive health.

It is already recognized that people in occupations with higher job complexity (e.g. legislators, managers, architects) generally show better cognitive performance, slower cognitive decline and also have a reduced risk of developing dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) later in life. “We wanted to find out more about the underlying mechanisms of job complexity,” says Staudinger. “And even more, what this means for workers in jobs with less complexity such as truck drivers, cleaners or bakers.”

Never stop learning

Applying multilevel transition models, Staudinger and her co-authors observed that novel information processing at work is a job characteristic that is linked to job complexity (in relation to both data and people) and therefore may reveal some of the mechanisms responsible for the protective effect on cognitive aging. “Not only has it a supporting effect on mental stimulation, but it can also be applied to less complex jobs,” Staudinger explains. “Thus, less cognitively able and less educated workers may also benefit from its protective characteristic.”

Changes at work are good for cognitive development

Novel information processing generally occurs when there is a mismatch between what we are used to do and what a given, new work task requires. When we bridge this gap, learning takes place. People that work in jobs that require more novelty processing, such as incorporating new pieces of information or facing new situational aspects on a more regular basis, are likely to garner greater cognitive benefits compared to those in jobs with less changes.

Data from over 4,000 individuals

“We looked at data from more than 4,000 individuals over a 14-year window,” says Staudinger. This included data from the Health and Retirement Study as well as more detailed information on occupational characteristics from the free online-database Occupational Information Network (O*Net) in the United States. “What we found is that exposure to increased novelty processing particularly slowed down cognitive decline in executive function and episodic memory, two domains that usually show strong age-related decline.” Their study not only focused on paid worked, but also considered the mental stimulation of leisure and volunteering activities.

For Staudinger, the findings of the new study highlight the importance of promoting lifelong learning. “While jobs of higher complexity confer benefits for cognitive aging, we must not overlook socially disadvantaged individuals in less complex jobs who are at greater risk of cognitive impairment,” she says. “That’s why work-related activities that incur learning processes are so important.” Staudinger is convinced that introducing some kind of novelty such as work task changes from time to time is possible in most jobs: “Simple measures can be easily implemented in daily work routines. They are an essential building block for strengthening societies of longer lives.”

More about this topic: Re-Thinking Human Aging

Report on Tomorrow’s Science: Ageing and Life Course Research in Germany

On December 16, Ursula M. Staudinger, spokeswoman for the Leopoldina Commission on Demographic Change, and other authors presented the Report on Tomorrow’s Science “Ageing and the Life Course. Research for Longer Lives”. For several years, seven leading scientists from different aging disciplines worked together on the future report under Staudinger’s leadership. This is dedicated to the central question: What research can help us to cope well with the challenges of longer life and demographic change?

“Alongside climate change, demographic change is one of the central challenges of the 21st century,” emphasized Staudinger in her opening statement at the online event of the German National Academy of Science Leopoldina with around 100 participants. Average life expectancy has increased by around 40 years over the past 150 years. In addition, life courses have become more diverse. These developments contribute to the fact that the scientific field of aging and life course research has gained significantly in importance. It is important to shape the “years gained” in such a way that the quality of life, productivity and innovative capacity of a society of longer lives are maintained and further developed.

Germany has some catching up to do

The increase in average life expectancy is an achievement of socio-cultural development. In contrast to other species, humans have the ability to change their own development and the aging process. So human aging is not only influenced biologically. Rather, the aging process arises from the continuous interaction between biology, individual decisions and lifestyles, as well as the socio-cultural context. The biopsychosocial model developed by Staudinger illustrates the interplay between context, person and organism.

Ursula M. Staudinger at the online event on 16 December

This finding also underscores the need for interdisciplinary research that brings together findings from individual disciplines in order to enable the successful management of demographic change. According to the Report on Tomorrow’s Science, Germany is currently still lagging behind its potential, despite extensive research, and compares poorly with other countries such as France, the Netherlands, the USA and Great Britain.

Interdisciplinary research is needed

The authors of the future report point out that the predominant funding topics for aging research in Germany are diseases and their molecular basis as well as care and technical assistance systems in old age. However, in order to be able to answer key research questions, other research areas must be given greater consideration and all relevant disciplines must be included in funded projects. “The inclusion must not stop at a juxtaposition of the disciplines but must take the step towards an equal cooperation in order to raise the progress of knowledge in aging and life course research to the next level,” said Staudinger. “So far there has been no will for a broad-based aging research agenda.”

Social, behavioral and human sciences are also much less represented in German aging and life course research than in Great Britain, Sweden or the Netherlands, for example. Strategic and programmatic funding in the form of centers, programs, research infrastructure and further training measures is of great importance for interdisciplinarity. The authors of the report spoke out in favor of a competence network – building on existing centers – with a central coordination office and wanted politicians to send positive signals for a national research strategy in the field of aging and life course research.

Corona as an amplifier

In addition to the Report on Tomorrow’s Science, an extra supplement identified challenges that arise from the coronavirus pandemic for aging and life course research. The pandemic revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the health system and further enhance the topics mentioned in the future report. For example, people with previous illnesses that are more common in old age are exposed to a higher risk of death. The authors emphasize that the challenges facing society as a result of demographic change, climate change and currently COVID-19 must be seen more closely in context in the future and addressed with even more determination.

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The following authors of the report spoke at the event:
  • Professor Josef Ehmer, Department of Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Austria; International Research Center “Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History”, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
  • Professor Alexia Fürnkranz-Prskawetz (Leopoldina member), Institute of Statistics and Mathematical Methods in Economics, Vienna University of Technology, Austria; Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, Vienna, Austria
  • Professor Gerd Kempermann (Lead), German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases Dresden; Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden, Dresden University of Technology
  • Professor Karl Ulrich Mayer (Leopoldina member), Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin;
    Yale University, New Haven, USA
  • Professor Cornel Sieber, Institute for Biomedicine of Ageing, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg
  • Professor Johannes Siegrist, Institute for Medical Sociology, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf
  • Professor Ursula M. Staudinger (Leopoldina member, Spokeswoman Leopoldina Standing Committee Demographic Change, Lead), Dresden University of Technology

Festive inauguration of Ursula M. Staudinger

Ursula M. Staudinger was officially introduced to her position as rector of the Technische Universität Dresden (TU Dresden) with a festive ceremony on September 21, 2020. Due to current Corona regulations, the number of guests on site was limited. More than 920 viewers followed the event online via live stream.

The official inauguration took place in the presence of the Saxon Prime Minister, Michael Kretschmer, the Saxon State Minister for Science, Sebastian Gemkow, the Lord Mayor of Dresden, Dirk Hilbert, the rectors of friendly Saxon colleges and universities, the members of the university council, the guests of honor, the extended rectorate of the TU Dresden and the spectabilities of the Technical University of Dresden as well as the former magnificences Prof. Achim Mehlhorn and Prof. Hans Müller-Steinhagen.

Convincing election

“I’m happy about this day – and above all because it was such an incredibly convincing election,” said Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer to Ursula Staudinger. “This requires a great deal of common sense and a shared understanding of what is good for this university.” He wished her all the best and was looking forward to working with her. Due to her international experience, she was ideally suited to lead the university into the future.

Ursula M. Staudinger receives the insignia of the office of the rector of TU Dresden (© TU Dresden, Michael Kretzschmar)

“With today’s investiture, a woman will receive the insignia of the highest office of our university for the second time,” said Gunda Röstel, Chair of the University Council of the TU Dresden, in her greeting. The expectations are high, from securing lasting excellence to a nationally and internationally sought-after teaching institution and a university as an active part of society, she emphasized. As an experienced executive in the scientific community, Staudinger was not only trustworthy, she had already set important signals at the beginning of the course and would – together with the expanded rectorate – also reach new shores.

With humility and vigour

“With the insignia of the office of the rector of the Technical University of Dresden, I stand before you today in humility, but also with vigour, in the face of the task that was initially assigned to me by the Senate of the Technische Universität Dresden and then confirmed by the Minister of State”, said Staudinger in her speech. For her, the gown and the chain of office were less a sign of power than a sign of responsibility for the good and successful further development of the TU Dresden.

Ursula M. Staudinger at her investiture as Rector of TU Dresden (Photo: © TU Dresden, Michael Kretzschmar)

Staudinger thanked the former magnificences for their excellent work in the past: “Together with the members of the university, they have created an excellent starting point for successfully shaping the future of the TU Dresden.” As an “Excellence University” the TU Dresden is one of Germany’s leading universities and also globally among the top 200 of 1000 universities ranked worldwide.

Excellence requires continuity

“To achieve the excellence status of the TU Dresden again together and thus to secure the future development of our university, is the most important goal of my five-year term of office”, said Staudinger. A secured funding, therefore, was crucial for the university’s continued success. “Excellent research and teaching need continuity in order to maintain the level or even to develop it further. They cannot be turned up and down at will without loss of quality and productivity.”

“We live in a time that is characterized by challenges that can only be mastered globally,” said Staudinger. Therefore, another goal of the TU Dresden was to develop into a globally oriented and at the same time regionally anchored university of the 21st century. Interdisciplinarity at eye level, research-related teaching, but also opening up to new groups of learners as well as social engagement and a high level of attractiveness as an employer were important aspects.

Staudinger took over the official duties as rector on August 18 and presented the extended rectorate as well as her vision for the TU Dresden at a press conference the day before.

Watch the investiture of Ursula M. Staudinger as Rector of TU Dresden on YouTube