30 years of science at the Wachtberg research facility

Mr. Biermann, in 2018 you will celebrate a major anniversary: 30 years at the institute's facility in Wachtberg, under the auspices of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft since 2009. What do you like about your work?

JB: As early as 1988, when I applied to the predecessor institute of today's FKIE, I was convinced that I wanted my scientific work to contribute to ensuring our security. At the time, this thought was exclusively concerned with military aspects and I can say that, to date, I have had the opportunity to work on tasks that aligned with this basic motivation.


How have your focus and tasks changed during this time?

JB: The transition from FGAN to an institute of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was part of a transformation of the scientific landscape in the Federal Republic of Germany, in the course of which several core-funded research institutions were integrated into other scientific organizations. For the FGAN institutes, their admission to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft was accompanied by a shift in their tasks and thus also in their work culture.

In concrete terms, this meant that the limitation imposed at the time on FGAN to focus its efforts on predominantly long-term research for the Bundeswehr was augmented by tasks targeted for rapid implementation and application.  The examination of more tangible problems in the civilian world was new and also had a stimulating effect on the science. Even today, our main concern is to advise and support the Bundeswehr with our scientific research. In addition, we now have the opportunity to apply our methods and findings equally in both areas: defense and security. Clearly, this is a benefit - not only for us, but for society as a whole.


Would you therefore assess the transition from FGAN to Fraunhofer FKIE positively?

JB: At the end of the day, yes, although it has to be said that the transition was a real challenge, especially for the more senior staff members. One of their responsibilities was project acquisition, for which they had no experience in the civilian sector. Despite this, we were able to secure the necessary orders, which then demanded a project-oriented approach, something we first had to learn in the context of real-world projects for the industry.

Working on concrete, application-oriented tasks - and it should be emphasized that they are highly diverse - has had a positive effect on scientific work. In addition, it turned out that the expertise of the older staff complemented the energy and curiosity of the younger colleagues, who we suddenly had in increasing numbers at the institute and who brought with them many suggestions from their studies, which they had often just completed. It was a positive new experience for me and many of the older staff members to work on teams with younger colleagues and help them find their feet in their introduction to scientific work.


A career at Fraunhofer is a proven excellent credential in a CV and reflects the Fraunhofer principle of the »continuous-flow heater«: recruiting young, exceptionally talented scientists from universities, allowing them to research exciting, forward-looking issues, grow scientifically, and then releasing them to pursue careers in the private sector. Your career proves that Fraunhofer does not have to be just a stopover...

JB: That's right. At FKIE, scientists can work very well over a long period - even with the assurance that they will always be assigned varied, new tasks that they could not have foreseen when they were hired.

From the perspective of the research group and as a deputy head of department, which I have been for 15 years now in the department of Sensor Data and Information Fusion, I take a critical view of the »continuous-flow heater« principle. As a scientific department, we cannot think and work solely on short-term projects. We have to maintain and expand our scientific expertise, without which we would be incapable of fulfilling our mission for the Bundeswehr and our civilian customers, by working on long-term scientific issues.

New employees who come to us from the universities certainly need one or two years to familiarize themselves with the work. After that, they can be utilized productively and can maybe even do a doctorate, which we support very much. So, it does hurt when they leave us after five or six years. Especially if they have been utilized in a field that has just been established.


You're a mathematician. Are mathematicians in good hands at the Fraunhofer FKIE? What do you focus on in the department of Sensor Data and Information Fusion?

JB: As a mathematician you can work in almost any of the natural sciences and, of course, also in an IT-oriented research institute with a strong focus on modelling and automation of technical-physical processes and systems or the evaluation of complex informational relationships. With its wide range of topics, FKIE offers many interesting positions for mathematicians.

I have focused my work on the subject of knowledge-based information fusion. I was recruited in response to a call for tenders for an »Investigation into the potential uses of expert systems,« which at the time was a current field of artificial intelligence. In my professional career I have experienced three AI hypes and currently so-called deep learning is favored for some tasks. Solutions have been found to some of the earlier AI problems, but many key issues are still the same and remain unresolved. There's still plenty to do.


What would you say was the most pleasant, exciting or memorable event of your time at FKIE?

JB: A particularly exciting and essential part of my past and present work has been the opportunity to engage in numerous activities in the context of working groups of the NATO Science & Technology Organization (STO); that is, international cooperation in joint projects with scientific research institutions of other NATO countries. They have impacted and enriched my working life in a professional and personal way. They are also one of the reasons why I have extended my tenure at the Fraunhofer FKIE by another year before retirement, since I want to complete some of these NATO projects. That is an important matter to me.