Foreign researchers Scientists of Excellence for German Research

Alec Wodtke; Photo: Humboldt-Stiftung / David Ausserhofer
Alec Wodtke | Photo (detail): Humboldt-Stiftung / David Ausserhofer

The German research scene is becoming more and more attractive to foreign researchers. The reason for this is to be found in the various instruments available like the Alexander von Humboldt Professorships. German science and research however have also been dealt a good hand by the fact that conditions in other countries are changing all the time.

Alec Wodtke, for example, actually thought he had no chance at all of ever working or doing research in Germany, but then the professor of physical chemistry saw a joint advertisement from the University of Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for Bio-physical Chemistry. Alex Wodtke applied for the post - and three years ago he became a professor at the University of Göttingen. At the same time he is also head of the “surface dynamics” department at the Max Planck Institute. Alec Wodtke was furthermore awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which is endowed with five million euros for his resaerch over a period of five years.

“The offer from Göttingen was excellent,” says Alec Wodtke, “the working conditions there are very attractive.” Before Göttingen he had been a lecturer for many years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Alec Wodtke, however, does in fact admit that it was not the professorship alone that enticed him to go to Germany. “There was also a personal reason.” The researcher was in Germany 25 years ago at the Max Planck Institute for Flow Dynamics Research, where he met his wife, “And we always said that we would move back to Germany if a good opportunity ever arose.” And arise it did with the offer from Göttingen.

In Göttingen he is now doing research into new theories on the processing of materials which researchers suspect contain atoms and electrons that react in a different way than previously thought. “We are calling one of chemistry’s most important fundamentals into question,” says Alec Wodtke. “ We believe that transformation processes are taking place between atoms and electrons that until now have gone unnoticed. This means that whole new theories for the processing of materials will have to be developed.” Some initial progress has already been made with a modicum of success, but there are still quite a few questions to be answered.

“Germany's most valuable research award”

As we can see, the Alexander von Humboldt-Professorships certainly succeed in attracting professors from abroad who are the leaders in their field. “It is a question of Germany's most valuable research award, ”says Georg Scholl, spokesman for the Humboldt Foundation. What is so special about it is the fact that it is not bound to any one particular project, but more geared to the recipient. Renowned research institutes such as the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft or the Max Planck Society take part willingly in the nominations. “The aim of the professorships is above all to strengthen the positions of the universities,” says Georg Scholl. Since 2009 Humboldt Professorships have been awarded to 34 researchers.

The fact that German universities succeed in attracting top researchers from abroad is not only to be attributed to German science and research having caught up with the rest of the world, says Sabine Jung, Managing Director of the German Scholars Organization. The aim of this non-profit association is in fact to bring German researchers back from abroad and integrate them back into the German research scene. A new program has in fact just been introduced to get top scientists in the field of medicine to come back to Germany. “The research conditions in USA and Great Britain have deteriorated no end due to the financial crisis.” Sponsorship and financing projects are no longer the attractive options they used to be, competition for third-party funding is growing all the time. This is why Germany as a location has profited.

Alec Wodtke experienced this when he was lecturing in America. “At many American universities the financial pressure is a big problem.” Public funding, he continued, had been reduced and it was no longer that easy to get third-party financing. In this respect Germany had gone down a different road. The policy of maintaining a healthy research base was important.

There is still work to be done

There is no disputing the fact that Germany has undertaken great efforts to make life attractive for top researchers from both home and abroad. High-profile projects like the Alexander von Humboldt-Professorships have worked wonders, but also other schemes like the German Federal and State Excellence Initiative, the aim of which is to sponsor and promote outstanding projects and ideas at German universities; by 2017, 45 Graduate Schools, 43 Clusters of Excellence and eleven future concepts for top research at university level, the so-called Elite Universities, will have benefited from it. “This has created a new spirit at German universities,” says Sabine Jung.

Nevertheless there is still a lot of work to be done, for example, with respect to the prospects for up and coming, young researchers. Many young researchers go from one temporary contract to the next and do a 40-hour week, although they only have a part-time position. On top of that there is a distinct lack of career paths for them to take. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the adventure of science, it is often not clear for a long time, whether you will be rewarded with a professorship at the end of the career ladder.

When it comes to the question of dual careers, Sabine Jung also sees a need to make up lost ground. Researchers very often do not come alone, meaning their spouses also have to have good job prospects in the new country. “In the USA they deal with these issues in a much more professional way,” says Sabine Jung.

She went on to say that getting international researchers to come back to Germany would only work in the long term, if they were offered optimal conditions. “The financial funding of the chair has to function effectively. Ideally the researcher should be given the opportunity to bring his own team with him.” There would also be an important competitive edge if the position were endowed with civil-servant status - a status that implies a vocation or a calling - and one which many researchers really appreciate. After all, there is no better way of securing a professional career.