Young Scientists Hit the Jackpot

If you want to know what it feels like to be in charge of your own research project, including financial responsibility for up to ? 1.2 million, Grigori Vajenine from the Russian Federation will soon be able to tell you. At age 27, he is the youngest of 29 young scientists who were awarded a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award in Berlin last week.

Named after a 19th-century Russian mathematician, the award was administered by the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation ( AvH). The ? 21.5 million total prize money was provided by the federal research ministry from the "Zukunftsinvestitionsprogramm" investment programme, created after the German government sold UMTS cell phone standard licenses for over ? 50 billion 2 years ago.

German research minister Edelgard Bulmahn conferred the prizes personally to the winners. "I really considered these awards as very important," she explained. "I wanted to create an opportunity for young researchers to work free from bureaucratic struggles", she continued, and "I also wanted to give a clear signal that we want young excellence in Germany."

According to AvH-Foundation President Wolfgang Frühwald, the award scheme, which will enable the 29 winners to establish their own research groups at German host institutions over the next 3 years, was very attractive and appealing to young scientists worldwide. "We had 109 applications," he said, a good number considering the short timeframe (beginning in October 2000) in which the programme was established. "The applications were of such a high quality that we could have easily given away four or five additional awards," he added. Applications came from more than 30 countries and five continents.

Frühwald pointed out that the awards will have a considerable impact on Germany's academic landscape. They "are a vitamin shot for Germany's universities", he said, and "they mark a very important step towards the internationalisation of Germany's research." While the Sofja Kovalevskaja Awards will strengthen the individual host universities' profiles, they also come with a challenge: "The universities will have to learn that they [must] start their own initiatives and create incentives in order to have these scientists stay on after 3 years. They have to learn to compete for the best", the AvH-Foundation President declared.

According to Bulmahn, though, "Germany provides excellent opportunities for young scientists." About 50% of university professors are due to retire over the next 3 years, so young hopefuls should have excellent prospects.

Although the awardees come from many different disciplines, most of them (10) are life scientists, followed by physicists (6), chemists (5), philosophers, and materials scientists (2 each). One award each went to individuals working in electrical engineering, geosciences, law, and mathematics. "This distribution also shows the individual disciplines' mobility", said Frühwald. "While life scientists are extremely mobile, social scientists usually wake up when the prizes have already been conferred."

Besides attracting foreign researchers to boost Germany's science base, the awards have also helped to bring home some lost sons and daughters. Eight awardees are native Germans returning after several years of research abroad. Asked about her decision to leave the U.K., botanical physiologist Tina Romeis emphasised all the advantages that come with the award: "Although I had offers from other institutions in the U.K. and the U.S., I am German, after all. And the fact that I am leading my own group will help me to quickly develop my own research profile on a competitive level."

Her views were echoed by immunologist Joachim Schultze, who will set up his group at the University of Cologne's Clinic for Internal Medicine. "The first 3 years of scientific independence [are] the most important period for a researcher," he pointed out.

Italian geologist Tiziana Boffa Ballaran, now with the Bavarian Geo Institute in Bayreuth, was also full of praise for the scheme. "I certainly hope that several other European countries will take an example from the German initiative. The awards will not solve all the problems in the academic sector, but they are a first step."

Frühwald stated that the awards have already had an effect beyond the small circle of recipients. The University of Constance, blessed with one award winner, has recently set up a centre for young scientists, for example. Students may benefit from the awards as well. Although the awards come with no teaching obligations, scientists like Schultze pointed out that they are certainly interested in taking over some of these duties--"but not in a traditional lecturing position, rather by establishing new structures and serving as mentor for students."

Sadly, while the initiative has been so warmly welcomed, its future is uncertain. The original intention was that the Sofja Kovalevskaja Awards would be conferred only once. "But there are weak signals that we may have a second round", Bulmahn says. To have a substantial, long-term effect, at least two or three rounds would be necessary, the research minister and Frühwald agreed.

Further information about the Sofja Kovalevskaja Awards can be found on the Humboldt Foundation's Web site. And stay tuned--Next Wave Germany will be following the awardees' progress.

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