29 March 2018

Splendid isolation, my foot!

Following the Yes to Brexit scientists have been asking themselves what is going to happen to British-German research relations. A group of them recently looked for solutions for the future during the Humboldt Colloquium held in Oxford from 15 to 17 March.

The mood among the participating scientists in Oxford – the university city that is steeped in tradition and as the local tourism office proudly states on its website: the City of Dreaming Spires – could be better. Outside, in front of the university's Mathematical Institute there's a picket line braving the inclement March weather. The picketers are protesting government plans to cut pensions for scientific personnel. Inside, in the main auditorium the focus is on another contentious issue, the Brexit decision. There is absolutely nothing "splendid" about this act of totally unnecessary self-isolation, Rüdiger Görner from the University of London noted, railing that Great Britain is undermining itself through its own foolishness. The German-born literary scholar has worked for more than 30 years in England and gave the keynote address at the Humboldt Foundation alumni meeting in Oxford which was attended not only by 150 individuals who have been sponsored by the Foundation but also by 50 young scientists.

Enno Aufderheide, Secretary General of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, at the opening ceremony of the interdisciplinary colloquium "Moving forward – The UK-German research network in a changing world" (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Literary scholar Rüdiger Görner from the University of London gave the keynote lecture "Brexism or: How to Emerge from Political Psychosis" (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Plenary Discussion "UK-German Cooperation in Globalising Research: Sharing Experiences on What Makes the Difference" (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Humboldt Professor Sharon Macdonald, HU Berlin and Barbara Sheldon, Head of Strategic Planning of the Humboldt Foundation (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Martyn Poliakoff, University of Nottingham and Dirk Rohmann, Bergische Universität Wuppertal (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Humboldt Professor Stefanie Engel, Osnabrück University, gave the keynote lecture "Acting Climate-friendly: Hurdles and Solution Approaches" (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

(Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Aditi Lahiri, President of the UK Alexander von Humboldt Association (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

(Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Poster sessions provided an opportunity for networking and individual conversations. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Poster sessions provided an opportunity for networking and individual conversations. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Participants networking during the break. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Participants networking during the break. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Participants networking during the break. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Participants networking during the break. (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Keith Barnes)

Sharp increase in fellowship applications

The young researchers are interested in undertaking career steps in other countries, like many other scientists currently working in the United Kingdom. This is also confirmed by the demand for Humboldt Fellowships last year. Applications from the UK have increased sharply since the Yes vote on Brexit: from previously 70 to 80 fellowship applications, the number has risen to currently 119. What is striking is the large share of applicants of European – but not British – nationality; this share has nearly doubled. Individuals who do not hold a British passport are uncertain about how things will look for foreigners at British universities after Brexit and are consequently looking abroad, many of the participants at the conference recounted, including a large number of Germans who currently live and work on the island.

A feeling of no longer being welcome

In addition to many individuals' uncertainty about their private and professional situation as well as their residence status, the discussion also focused on the general climate which has also changed in the wake of the heated discussions over Brexit. The researchers did not report on any direct hostility against foreigners. Many of the scientists attending the colloquium did however comment on a feeling of no longer being welcome, as they once were, and that they experienced British society as being less open and more focused on national interests.

The end of a close relationship?

Rüdiger Görner spoke of an unhealthy mix of post-imperial illusions, outdated notions of national sovereignty, dogmatic self-righteousness, open disdain for proven political and cultural partnerships, and even animosity towards those individuals who are critical of Brexit. Continuing, he pointed to British science's close relationship with the EU which is now at risk. He also noted that 200,000 students from other EU States are currently studying at British universities where citizens from other EU States constitute 16 per cent of the academic personnel. One out of every four British publications, he said, is the product of collaboration with a European partner. In addition, 20 per cent of the projects in England that receive funding through the EU's Horizon 2020 programme are coordinated by European partners.

Binational rather than European?

So, what comes next? Many are hoping that strengthening binational cooperation – not only with partners from the EU but also with other countries such as China – will offset these changes. The DFG's cooperation programmes presented at the conference also met with great interest. These programmes enable funding for joint German-British projects.

More contact, less snobbishness

So, the shock and dismay over the Brexit decision has given way to a search for solutions for the future. This also includes the science community's resolution to ensure that it is heard more in the future and takes to the streets not only, as was being done during the Colloquium, because pension schemes are in danger. "We academics have lost contact with the British voter", said Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham. And Ulrike Hahn from the University of London urged that science should not snobbishly ignore legitimate concerns of Brexit advocates.

Nudging towards better solutions

The solution might just lie in the strategies the environmental economist Stefanie Engel from the University of Osnabrück presented for dealing with climate change. Her presentation covered how to persuade sceptics, why individuals prefer to achieve short-term goals rather than thinking on a long-term basis, why deficits and shortcomings are noticed more than advantages and, most importantly, how to change one's own behaviour through nudging. All this explains, according to one comment from the plenum, much about what went wrong in the Brexit discussion. And what must be done better in future.

The Colloquium in Oxford was conducted in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Every year, the Humboldt Foundation organises two major colloquia abroad to which alumni from the respective country or region are invited.


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