Welcome back to
Interview with Antje Eichler,
Doctoral candidate at
Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany
Prof. Eichler, you are part of an interesting research study titled “Lobbying for science and higher education”. Can you explain how it was born and which are its main findings?
With their research, universities and science organizations provide an important basis for political
decisions. This was impressively demonstrated not least by the Covid19 pandemic. Despite this
importance, the relationship between science and politics has been insufficiently researched. In a
workshop at the annual conference of the German University Communication Association
(Bundesverband Hochschulkommunikation) a few years ago, those responsible for communication at
colleges and universities for the first time exchanged views on how their institutions communicate
with politics. The workshop made clear: Some universities are surprisingly active, from parliamentary
breakfasts to bus trips for MPs to the campus. Others reported that they were already happy when the
mayor showed up to welcome the freshmen. A very heterogeneous picture – like university
communication as a whole. And the reason for me to empirically investigate the activities in this area.
That is, to develop a theoretical concept for science lobbying and to conduct a comprehensive
stocktaking. Building on a qualitative preliminary study in 2017 and 2018 with 17 semi-standardized
guideline interviews, I developed a standardized online questionnaire that a total of 120
communication officers from universities, research organizations and alliances completed in 2019 and
The findings paint a multi-layered and heterogeneous picture of science lobbying. Nevertheless, three
key findings can be highlighted: Firstly, there is a lack of awareness of the importance of science
lobbying, especially at universities. Secondly, the institutions lack a lobbying strategy. And thirdly:
The science alliances – whose primary task is to represent political interests – only speak with a weak
The reasons for the lack of strategic communication between science and politics are manifold.
Nevertheless, three essential factors can be identified: First, despite its importance, lobbying is poorly
researched. Theoretical definitions are imprecise and empirical studies are lacking, also a reason why
lobbying has a bad public image. In parts of society and especially in science, lobbying is therefore
considered a dirty business that is better left out of. This results, secondly, in a frightening ignorance
on the part of politicians. Large sections of politics simply do not have universities and science on
their radar. They have all kinds of people from business on their doorstep, but not from science. The
president of the University of Braunschweig just reported this in the same way from a meeting with
members of the Bundestag: “They told us: we don’t know what the universities are doing”; The main
reason for this – and here we come to the third factor for the lack of strategic orientation – is to be
found inside the institutions: There is a lack of clear responsibilities concerning communication,
especially at the universities – the research organizations are better positioned here – and university
communication still does not have the status it should have. There are personal speakers of the
president who do not communicate with the university communication department. University
communication is not involved in communication with politics, just as it is often not involved in the
strategic development of the university.
Are there any suggestions for people that are communicating in (and for) universities and research institution to make their communication more strategic and effective towards political institutions?
The recommendations result from the last-mentioned reason for the lack of strategic communication:
The people that are communicating in (and for) universities and research institutions need to be much
more connected to the head of the organization and involved in the overall planning. This is the crucial
basis for successful communication and lobbying. Only in this way can those responsible for
communication develop a lobbying concept together with the relevant stakeholder within the
organization. Such a concept should – like any PR concept – follow a communicative cycle: from
analytical order to strategic planning to operational implementation, which then contains concrete
measures that finally also must be evaluated to be able to adapt and optimize the lobbying concept.
Often, the analytical and planning steps are skipped. Instead, one gets straight down to individual
measures, according to the motto: Why don’t you invite all the city councillors to the inauguration of
our new laboratory? Or: Our federal state will soon be presenting itself at a trade fair in Berlin. Let our
president and vice-presidents go there. Such measures are not well thought out and not coordinated
internally and therefore usually come to nothing.
A few universities are now actually implementing this requirement: Last year, the first university in
Germany anchored communication directly in the presidency, virtually at the same level as the vice-
presidents for research and teaching. The woman who took over this job at the University of Freiburg
at the beginning of last year is the same one who initiated the workshop on the conference where my
research idea came from. And the colleague who supported her in it became Chief Communication
Officer at the Technical University of Darmstadt shortly afterwards. Almost simultaneously, the
Technical University of Dresden followed, and this year the Technical University of Munich, the
University of Cologne and the Technical University of Braunschweig. Anchoring communication at
the level of a vice president in the presidency is not mandatory for all universities and research
institutions. But the signal is clear: strategic communication belongs into the executive board.
About The project highlights the role of “science alliances”: what are they and how are they strategical for lobby actions for universities?
One of the central tasks of associations and their primary reason for foundation is the political
representation of their members’ interests. In science, there are numerous associations between
universities and between research organizations. In Germany, they range from the local and regional
level through the federal states to nationally active associations. In addition, there are countless
cooperations at the European level. So far, there is no uniform overview of the associations. In my
study, I try to collect everything that exists. In Germany, the so-called “Landesrektorenkonferenzen”
(literally translated: federal conferences of the universities presidents) are particularly relevant since
education and science are the responsibility of the federal states. Their role is even anchored in the
state higher education laws. They are supposed to coordinate activities of the universities in a federal
state and articulate common concerns to politicians.
In practice, these associations fulfil their tasks in different ways. Some have their own office, a
website and release statements on science policy. Most, however, are not really active. Instead, they
are in fact state rectors conferences in the truest sense of the word. To put it slightly exaggeratedly,
this is how it works: The rectors – mostly older men – of the universities of a federal state meet twice
a year and brag about how great their own university is and how great they would be if the state
politicians would make more money available. Finally, they decide to ask together for more money,
but in the end, everyone runs to the minister on his own.
More and more universities feel that they are not properly represented by these associations and start
their own initiatives. In recent years, new networks have emerged, such as the so-called TU9, German
U15, HAWtech or, most recently in 2020, the German University Alliance 11+. However, all these
alliances are more or less paper tigers that sometimes send out a press release or invite to an event.
They are not well known, neither in the media, nor in politics, nor even in their own community.
It would make perfect sense to bundle the concerns of the universities, to put weight on the scales and
to carry out joint actions. Just like industry associations such as the energy or the automobile sector do
– and are successful at it. The associations of universities and science do really have something to
offer politicians: millions of students, tens of thousands of jobs and, above all, their scientific expertise.
Especially at the European level, associations of universities and research organizations can play an important role. It would be very interesting to investigate this field together with researchers from other European countries and to derive recommendations for science and politics. For this, I would be happy to use the EUPRERA network.
The idea of my research project “Lobbying for Science and Higher Education” originates in my own
work experience at the communication department of a university. Initially, my study, therefore, aimed
at enlarging practical knowledge on how to lobby for universities and research institutions. When I
started my research, however, I quickly realized that there is not only a lack of empirical studies and
application-oriented research, but what is more, lobbying is not sufficiently framed theoretically. One
reason may be that communications science does not pay enough attention to lobbying compared to
the significant role lobbying plays for society. Whether the German Communications Science
Association, DGPuK, nor the European one, ECREA, has a separate section for lobbying. So, I was
very pleased when I came across EUPRERA, because here You find a “Public Affairs and Lobbying”
Many decisions concerning universities and research institutions are made at the European level. For
this reason, it is important for them to lobby there. However, detailed studies on this are lacking. The
EUPRERA network offers a good opportunity for further joint research and for developing training
programmes. In Germany, public affairs and lobbying are not yet an independent part of the
curriculum in communications studies. It would be beneficial for research and practice to strengthen
the existing know-how and activities within EUPRERA in this sense. So, let us continue networking
and exchanging ideas to give public affairs and lobbying the status in our field that they have in