Jump directly to the page contents


Understanding of sustainability in the Helmholtz Association

The issue of 'research for sustainable development' is also one that concerns the Helmholtz Association. 
Funded by the federal and state governments of Germany, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres has a special responsibility to society when it comes to research. As reflected in its mission statement, sustainability is one of the association’s core considerations, crucial to operations and the research process alike and requiring an integrated, systems-oriented management approach. In industry, companies have long enjoyed a shared understanding of the tenets of sustainability management, which are embodied in a range of standards including the German Sustainability Code (DNK) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  While these norms ensure effective and credible sustainability management in industrial companies, they are of limited relevance to research organisations, which differ from industrial companies in their mandate, mission and legal and organisational structure.

Through a dedicated working group, the Helmholtz Association has been addressing sustainability across its centres since 2011   and has identified some initial areas for action, mostly related to campus-specific topics such as construction and operations. From 2014 to 2016, the Helmholtz Association, the Fraunhofer Society and the Leibniz Association produced a report as part of the LeNa joint project ‘Sustainability Management in Non-University Research Organisations’ with a view to bridging the gap in sustainability standards for research organisations. The report was issued to the then Federal Minister for Education and Research Johanna Wanka in October 2016. Since April 2018, the Sustainability Forum Working Group has been implementing a series of management approaches that enable the Helmholtz Association to evolve into a research organisation that operates in a sustainable manner. Beyond standards, guidelines and management approaches, the individual Helmholtz centres are already on their way to achieving centre-specific sustainability through resource-saving, future-facing projects, guided by the insights provided by LeNa and other principles.

Organisational Management

While governance processes set the overarching framework in research organisations, it is down to management teams to establish the strategic planning and participatory organisational development that consolidates sustainability within organisations. Other tasks include promoting a culture of compliance with the rules and boosting knowledge transfer and exchange with society.


LeNa identified three complementary action areas needed to integrate sustainability into social responsibility in research. A culture of scientific integrity underpins the implementation of sound scientific practice, but ‘socially responsible research’ goes much further: it requires social responsibility to be systematically reflected within the research process itself. This defines the research process – the ‘how’ of research. Meanwhile, ‘contributions to solving societal challenges’ concerns the ‘what’ of the research, with topic-based contributions to scientific solutions from science.

Human Resources

In the HR functional area, the actions are focused on the responsibility of research organisations towards their employees, related to the social goals of sustainable development. This requires professional HR management that has sufficient resources to strategically plan and implement the necessary HR management activities. Activities in this area include supporting staff in their career development, dealing responsibly with temporary employment contracts, ensuring equal opportunities and the appreciation of diversity, creating healthy working conditions and developing skills for future-forward, responsible action.

Building and Infrastructure

The functional area of ​​Buildings and Infrastructure is about planning, building and operating infrastructure based on the principles of sustainable development. The aim is to provide a future-focused working environment that meets the needs of the company, while assuming responsibility for the environment and society at large. This calls for the fulfilment of technical and functional requirements, user satisfaction, energy and resource efficiency, cost-effectiveness and quality design. The fields of action in this area are geared towards the life cycle of buildings and infrastructure, from planning and structural design to construction and modernisation, from operation and management to demolition and disposal.

Supportive Processes

The Supportive Processes functional area deals with procurement processes, job-related mobility in research organisations and their indirect effects on the environment and society. It is important to purchase products and services and meet the mobility needs of employees in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner.