Excellence Initiative

On June 23, 2005, the German federal and state governments agreed on an initiative to promote top-level research in Germany. The Excellence Initiative aims to strengthen science and research in Germany in the long term, improve its international competitiveness and raise the profile of top performers in academia and research. The Excellence Initiative has already run through two phases (2006-2011, 2012-2018). The third one started in January 2019 and is set to run for another seven years.

Clusters of Excellence

Distribution of CoEs in Germany (Source: Dr. Jörn Achterberg, DFG Russia/CIS

Clusters of Excellence (CoEs) are one of the many "funding tools" of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG). See them all here.

As explained on the DFG website, "Clusters of Excellence enable German university locations to establish internationally visible, competitive research and training facilities, thereby enhancing scientific networking and cooperation among the participating institutions. Clusters of excellence should form an important part of a university's strategic and thematic planning, significantly raise its profile and reflect its considered long-term priorities. They should also create an excellent training environment for early career researchers. In conjunction with the other two funding lines, i.e. graduate schools and institutional strategies to promote top-level research, clusters of excellence will help to increase Germany's attraction as a research location in the long term and improve its international competitiveness."

Our doctoral program was part of the CoE "UniCat" from 2007 to 2018 and then became "closely associated" with its successor, the CoE "UnisysCat".


UniCat is a DFG Cluster of Excellence within the Excellence Initiative as described above. The idea of UniCat was formulated in a proposal submitted to the DFG in April 2007. The positive decision on the funding of the cluster was announced in October 2007. From that point on, UniCat was financed continuously by the DFG Excellence Initiative until December 2018.

Founding and development of the BIG-NSE

At the beginning of 2007, the UniCat board decided not to wait for the DFG to make its decision concerning the funding of the cluster from November 2007 on. Since it is of upmost importance for the quality of the research in the field of catalysis to continuously attract the best students in the world to Berlin, the board decided to found a "light version" of the graduate school as soon as possible, in order to offer a high quality structured educational program to the students already here.

Thus, on May 29 2007, the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB), the host university of the UniCat consortium, decided to found the BIG-NSE at a founding ceremony with about 300 participants. The president of the TUB, Prof. Dr. Kurt Kutzler, presented a BIG-NSE founding certificate to each of the representatives of the institutions of the UniCat consortium. The Berlin Senator for Education, Sciences and Research, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Zöllner, co-founded the school with Prof. Kutzler and gave a speech on the urgent need to actively encourage young people to become highly qualified researchers in Germany.  The ceremony was even attended by representatives from industry and industrial foundations, two of whom also gave a speech. The tentative translation into English of the (German) press text, the program and pictures of the founding ceremony can be found here.

On October 19 2007, UniCat was chosen as one of the few successful proposals within the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments. The cluster received € 6.5 million yearly for five years to implement its program. Part of this money was transferred to the BIG-NSE, allowing it to recruit and fund (for three years) the PhD projects of up to ten new excellent students per year. More about this here

In June 2012, UniCat was granted a five-year extension in Excellence Initiative funding, and then again for another 14 months, unttil December 2018.

Finally, in October 2018, UniCat succeeded in its transformation into a new cluster, called UniSysCat, which will be financed for a further seven years by the DFG Excellence Initiative, beginning in January 2019.

Founding act of the BIG-NSE (May 29, 2007)

Founding batch (SS07) of the BIG-NSE (May 29, 2007)

Group photo of all principal investigators involved in the newly founded UniSysCat Cluster of Excellence (Feb. 2018)


UniSysCat (Unifying Systems in Catalysis) is the follow-up cluster of UniCat. It is being financed by the DFG Excellence Initiative for seven years from January 2019 on.

BIG-NSE becomes Einstein Center

In January 2019, the BIG-NSE became part of the Berlin-financed "Einstein Center of Catalysis" and is now receiving substantial funding from the Berlin Einstein Foundation for the seven years to come.

Within this new framework, the BIG-NSE (now EC2/BIG-NSE) is not just continuing its original mission. In addition, special emphasis is now placed on the promotion of interdisciplinary research between institutions and networks in the Berlin region. In particular, a new recruitment procedure has been designed to encourage future PhD students to work on topics at the interface between different research fields.

In the past, applicants could freely choose a PhD topic offered by one of the UniCat project leaders. Although the students were particularly encouraged to select a subject at the interface between two research areas and choose a second supervisor from another research field, occasionally PhD students would complete their degree by defending a thesis that in fact barely involved a second group.

As part of the new EC2 concept, applicants are now asked to apply for PhD scholarships/positions bound to a project proposal already defined by the Executive Board of EC2/BIG-NSE. Prior to their announcement, the project proposal are submitted internally by project leaders involved in UniSysCat. Only projects both at least one partner of UniSysCatand a member of one of the following Berlin networks* are accepted.


Consortium/Graduate SchoolHost institutionDiscipline
CoE Math+ / Berlin Mathematical School (BMS)TU, FU, and HU BerlinMathematics
CoE Neurocure/ Einstein Center for Neurosciences (ECN)Charité BerlinMedicine
CRC1078 “Protonation dynamics in protein function” and its IRTGFU BerlinBiophysics
Berlin International Graduate School in Model and Simulation-based Research (BiMoS)TU BerlinData science, simulation and modelling
IMPRS "Functional Interfaces in Physics and Chemistry"Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-GesellschaftPhysical chemistry
RTG “Bioactive Peptides – Innovative Aspects of Synthesis and Biosynthesis”TU BerlinChemistry/Biology
School of Analytical Sciences Adlershof (SALSA)TU BerlinChemistry/Biology

Abbreviations: CoE, Cluster of Excellence;  CRC, Collaborative Research Center; IMPRS, International Max Planck Research School; IRTG, Integrated Research Training Group; RTG, Research Training Group

 *The inclusion of further networks and initiatives not yet listed in the table requires the approval of the Executive Board of EC2.

Potential applicants are only allowed to apply for one of the project proposals selected by the Executive Board of EC2/BIG-NSE. Only proposals with a high level of interdisciplinary research are accepted. The latest list of selected project proposals can be found here.

This is one of the new measures applied by EC2/BIG-NSE with the intention of increasing the level of interdisciplinary research performed by its PhD students. Further measures, like the organization of regular interdisciplinary events, will be implemented as well.

Newly elected EC2 Board /January 2019:

At EC2/BIG-NSE, PhD students work on highly interdisciplinary topics. Not only in the field of molecular chemistry...


...and chemical engineering...

...but also in theory and modeling, and so on...