On the Prowl: Germany Is Looking for More Excellent Scientists

For decades, many of the brightest young scientists have left Europe to do postdoctoral research in the U.S. Many of them end up staying for good, depriving Europe of their intellectual capacity and know-how. Now, Germany is taking broad action on two fronts to balance the brain drain account. First, a new series of scholarships announced last week seeks to encourage excellent foreign scientists to set up their research groups in Germany. Second, considerable efforts are on the way to restructure Germany's research and higher education system according to the needs of the 21st century.

The message is simple: In the long run, brains are more important than money. And Germany is losing its minds. The U.S., in particular, has been very successful at drawing talent from overseas. Foreigners account for more than a quarter of American professors in the sciences, and more than half of the postdocs now working in the U.S. are born outside the country. In both categories, Germany is one of the U.S.'s most generous brain donors, holding rank three for postdoc supply and rank five on the list for professors: A development aid for U.S. research that costs Germany about 12% to 14% of its graduates each year.

The German government ignored the problem for years, until a recent dramatic plunge in the number of German natural science graduates in Germany and the disastrous draught in the IT sector grabbed their attention. "Looking at the demographic situation, we cannot afford any longer to pretend we would have sufficient young scientists in our own country forever," observed Germany's science minister Edelgard Bulmahn. But what is it that makes a position in the U.S. so much more attractive than a working place in Germany?

Looking for an answer to this most timely question, Bulmahn visited German postdocs at Stanford University, California, in January this year. And the young scientists were more than willing to give examples. They criticized a lack of independent postdoc research positions in Germany, rigid service regulations at the universities, and time-consuming teaching obligations for university research staff, as well as the absence of an international spirit in the higher education system. Last but not least, the uniquely German requirement of a second Ph.D. ("Habilitation") as precondition for becoming a professor in the German system was a major point of the critique that Bulmahn promised to take home and very seriously consider.

And last week, the time was ripe for action. Together with the presidents of Germany's Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the renown Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH), the science minister presented a broad package of measures with the goal to pave the road back home for young German scientists currently working abroad. The measure will also attempt to attract excellent foreign scientists and graduate students to Germany. The initiative comes along with an additional 170 million DM cash injection that will help make research programs and university curricula more international, create a more friendly and customer-oriented working environment for foreign scientists, and launch a professional international marketing of Germany's universities and research institutions.

Thanks to the fresh money, the universities will be able to invite foreign guest lecturers and offer guest professorships in high-tech disciplines like the life sciences, physics, and informatics (the DAAD's INNOVATEC-program). Furthermore, universities may also apply for grants to set up international "Quality Networks" with exchange of students and professors. And in collaboration with Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the DAAD launched a new program to bring excellent foreign graduate students to German universities. Detailed information including deadlines can be found at the DAAD's Web site.

Among the programs of the initiative are also attractive prizes and scholarships that invite excellent foreign scientists to set up their research groups in Germany. Between 2001 and 2003, AvH will bestow approximately 20 Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Awards, each up to $50,000 annually, to young foreign scientists and scholars who are already recognized as outstanding researchers in their fields. Recipients of AvH's new Kosmos Award, who are chosen from among the top young researchers abroad, will receive up to 750,000 DM annually from 2001 to 2003 to establish a group of young researchers in Germany. The award includes funds for the recipient's own salary and for the costs of setting up and operating an independent team of researchers in a field of the team's own choice.

German universities will have help as they prepare themselves to enter the competitive global higher education market. The brand new Consortium for the International Marketing of German Universities (GATE) will lead efforts to market the universities abroad. Sponsored by Germany's Industrial Donators' Association, Stifterverand, the consortium conducts an annual competition for the best marketing strategies, but also coordinates international fairs and advises universities and research institutions in all questions of image building, brain hunting, and export of higher education services. The new initiative is a milestone in a series of increasing efforts to establish Germany's position among the world's leading research nations, says Max Huber, spokesman of the new GATE consortium. "Germany will become a worldwide symbol for quality again," he says.

Other links:

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, AvH

German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD

Federal Ministry for Education and Research, BMBF


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