Annual Report

The HITS Annual Report 2020 – Foreword

In every Annual Report, the HITS management describes the major achievements of the preceding calendar year. At the beginning of 2020, in line with previous years, we wrote a text about communication at the Institute and the role that its environment and the physical proximity of the workspaces play in fostering solidarity and joint research at HITS.

Just a few weeks later, however, came the first corona lockdown in Germany, which posed a special challenge to all of us as well as to internal communications. We were able to deal with the new requirements very thoroughly and without major setbacks because almost all scientists and non-academic staff were able to work well from home. At the same time, it was important to us to maintain the HITS spirit and remain as transparent as possible. From the very beginning, it was critical to pass on the ever-changing public information on the implementation and easing of restrictions – which was initially only available in German – internally and on a weekly basis (and in English). As we have come to learn, the emails on the corona situation that were produced and circulated by the HITS communications team (see Chapter 4) were also passed on to colleagues at other institutes due to their thoroughness and usefulness.

Beginning in March, all events were canceled and soon switched to digital formats, which were even better attended than their pre-corona non-digital counterparts. The online end-of-the-year celebration was also a great success. We believe that our diligent communication in years past as well as during the crisis helped keep the HITS team spirit high. This team spirit remained despite the problems that most of us had and continue to have with the pandemic. The most important part of keeping spirits high, however, is played – as always – by the HITSters themselves thanks to their interest, motivation, trust, and good will. HITS is a special place to work, even when working from home.

This positive attitude was also reflected in our research: Some HITS groups participated in corona-related research (see Chapters 2.3, 2.4, 2.8, and 2.11), while others took advantage of the time to publish a considerable number of papers. In addition, numerous third-party funding approvals were granted, including no less than three ERC grants: one each for HITS group leaders Frauke Gräter (MBM) and Saskia Hekker (TOS) as well as for Fabian Schneider, a visiting scientist at proposal writing time who is using the funds from his ERC Starting Grant to establish his own junior group at HITS, “Stellar Evolution Theory” (SET), which began in January 2021.

We were thrilled to see independent reviewers recognize the achievements of HITS researchers in their respective fields, and we continue to work on the further development of HITS. An essential characteristic of the Institute is its interdisciplinarity. From the very moment of its founding, three clusters of research emerged and have been continually strengthened: We have groups that develop and apply methods in the life sciences, groups that make astronomical observations and simulations, and groups that work in a method-centered, cross-disciplinary way.

Within the individual fields, collaboration is relatively easy. Researchers from the life sciences, for example, share a common language. However, collaboration across disciplinary boundaries is more challenging. While there is already ongoing interdisciplinary work at HITS, we aim to give the opportunity addressing this challenge more intensively. One tool that can be used to help improve collaboration is called the “HITS Lab.”

The HITS Lab is an internal funding program for projects in which at least two groups from different disciplines at HITS come together to work on a shared topic. The participating groups have the opportunity to hire researchers as part of the HITS lab who – in turn – are jointly supervised by the respective group leaders.

The first project to emerge from the initial considerations of the HITS Lab was launched toward the end of 2019, when Frauke Gräter (MBM) and Michael Strube (NLP) together with Vera Nünning (from the English Department at Heidelberg University) – working within the framework of a project at the “Marsilius Kolleg” at Heidelberg University – asked, “Does the quality of writing influence scientific impact?” Around the same time, Michael Strube (NLP), Wolfgang Müller (SDBV), and colleagues obtained funding from the BMBF for the project “DeepCurate” (see Chapters 2.9 and 2.11). The scientific idea also came from the HITS Lab initiative.

Two additional HITS Lab projects began in 2020. The first project, “Emulators,” is a collaboration between Frauke Gräter (MBM), Fritz Röpke (PSO), and Tilmann Gneiting (CST) with the aim of estimating partial results via the clever use of machine-learning techniques – so-called emulators – and thereby of reducing computational effort (see Chapters 2.4 and 5.1.1). The second project, “Geometry and Representation Learning,” is a collaborative effort between Anna Wienhard (GRG), Michael Strube (NLP), and their groups that investigates the use of non-Euclidean geometries within natural language processing (NLP, see Chapter 2.6).

Despite the pandemic and contact restrictions of all kinds, there is much to report from HITS for 2020, and the next few years promise to continue to be fruitful. We expect to see projects and results that will take full advantage of the diversity of HITS and lead to the development new ideas. As you can also see, Scientific Director Frauke Gräter, who assumed office at the beginning of 2021, will continue to be heavily involved – not only in the management of HITS, but also in HITS Lab projects. We look forward to all that is to come.

Dr. Gesa Schönberger, Managing Director

PD Dr. Wolfgang Müller, Scientific Director 2019 & 2020

Read/download the HITS Annual Report 2020 online here (PDF):

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