Klaus Tschira began pursuing his ideas for a new institute in 2007. He felt that scientific research at the time lacked theories and the necessary methodological tools to analyze the mountains of scientific data that were available. For decades, the focus of scientific research had been on experiments in which vast amounts of data were produced. Tschira therefore imagined a multidisciplinary institute in which researchers from different fields could work with these data and exchange their methods. Not only was Tschira thinking about biology, but as a fan of astronomy, he also had galaxies and supernovae on his mind. After all, there are many questions that can´t be answered only with observations and experiments and require a theoretical understanding, be it in life sciences or astrophysics.
The plans for a “Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies” were driven forward by Klaus Tschira and Andreas Reuter. In addition to the life sciences, the research fields of scientific databases and computational linguistics as well as theoretical astrophysics, statistical methods, and computer science were intended to be included. The institute was planned to grow larger than EML Research and would eventually house around 120 scientists in about ten groups. Villa Reiner, located adjacent to Villa Bosch, the home of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, proved to be the ideal location for such an institute.
“HITS will be a very multidisciplinary institute. I believe that the intimate mixture of researchers from different disciplines will prove particularly stimulating.” Klaus Tschira, 8 March 2010.
HITS was established on 1 January 2010 when EML Research gGmbH changed its name. In March, the institute’s founding was celebrated with an opening colloquium. The keynote speaker was Jeannette Wing, who described computational thinking as a key skill in the 21st century. The opening event featured astrophysicist Volker Springel, who became the first researcher to be both a HITS group leader and a professor at the Heidelberg University.
Heidelberg University and HITS also collaborated to organize the 22nd International Conference on Data Management SSDBM that summer. Moreover, amongst other projects, HITS worked on data management and simulation methods in the BMBF network “Systems Biology of the Liver.” HITS continued to grow: by the autumn, computer scientist Alexandros Stamatakis had launched the new “Scientific Computing” research group.
Spider silk and open doors
Under the direction of Frauke Gräter, the “Molecular Biomechanics” (MBM) group dealt – among other things – with the fascinating properties of spider silk, which is more tear-resistant than steel. Using computer simulations, the group found that different molecular structures in the silk provide support and elasticity. These results can aid in the development of new, more tear-resistant plastics. Moreover, HITS opened its doors for an open house for the first time. In addition, the young institute made an appearance at the University of Heidelberg’s 625th anniversary with some exhibits at the so-called “UniMeile” (“University Mile”).
Prizes, press, and professorships
In addition to being one of the “big hitters in astronomy”, HITS astrophysicist Volker Springel is one of the most cited authors in his field. In 2012, he received an ERC Starting Grant for his research on galactic formation and evolution. Additional ERC grants for HITS researchers were awarded in the following years.
In the spring, HITS launched a “Journalist in Residence” program, which allows journalists with a focus on science journalism to engage in advanced computer-aided, data-driven research away from the pressures of everyday life. The first journalist in residence at HITS was renowned science journalist Volker Stollorz in June 2012.
Rapid growth: Four new groups at HITS
Within just three years, the number of research groups at HITS more than doubled. Instead of five, ten groups were now working on the campus on Schloss-Wolfsbrunnenweg. New additions this year included “Computational Biology” (CBI), “Data Mining and Uncertainty Quantification” (DMQ), “Astroinformatics” (AIN), and “Computational Statistics” (CST).
Scientific quality and organizational solidity
This year saw the fruition of several high-level research endeavours: The astrophysicists led by Volker Springel were successful in developing “Illustris,” the most detailed computer simulation of the universe to date, which they published in “Nature.” Furthermore, Alexandros Stamatakis and his group were involved in two pioneering publications in “Science”: The researchers calculated the phylogenetic trees of birds and insects and thus helped biologists to better understand the evolution of these groups of animals.
The high quality of HITS research was also reflected in the “Highly Cited Researchers” ranking: Tilmann Gneiting (“Computational Statistics”) and Volker Springel (“Theoretical Astrophysics”) were on the list in 2014. By 2016, Alexandros Stamatakis had become the third HITS researcher to join on the list of the most cited researchers in their fields.
In the autumn, HITS was restructured to ensure its long-term operation and further development as an institute after the completion of the initial growth phase. In the future, the institute would be headed by a dual leadership consisting of a Scientific Director and a Managing Director. The new HITS Foundation replaced the Klaus Tschira Foundation (KTS) as the main shareholder. It receives its funds from the KTS. Other shareholders include the Heidelberg University and the KIT Karlsruhe. Moreover, the Scientific Advisory Board was established.
Five years of HITS – A success story
To mark the Klaus Tschira Foundation’s 20th anniversary, HITS organized a scientific symposium in January with high-ranking speakers from politics and science. “Science needs an institute like HITS,” the representative of the Federal Government, Prof. Wolf-Dieter Lukas, said in his welcoming speech. “If Klaus Tschira had not founded it, then it would need to be founded today.”
In fact, the young institute already had a history of success. This included a second ERC grant awarded to a researcher at HITS. With the creation of two new research groups, the “Physics of Stellar Objects” (PSO) group and the “Groups and Geometry” (GRG) group, HITS was now coming to the end of its rapid growth phase.
2016 Change and continuity
This year was marked by a significant transition: Long-time Managing Director Andreas Reuter, who had built up HITS together with Klaus Tschira, completed his work for the institute and moved on to the HITS Foundation as a member of its Executive Board. Dr. Gesa Schönberger took Reuter’s place as the new Managing Director. Since then, Schönberger has led HITS together with regularly changing Scientific Directors.
With the creation of the “High Energy Astrophysics and Cosmology” (HAC) junior group, HITS grew to include 13 groups. With the increasing number of scientists, HITS expanded into additional rooms at a second location in Heidelberg: the “Mathematikon”, on Heidelberg University’s “Im Neuenheimer Feld” campus. This second location has facilitated intensification of interactions with Heidelberg University.