Christine PrußkyPhoto: David Ausserhofer
Christine Prußky is editor-in-chief of the German university newspaper DUZ in Berlin.
By Christine Prußky
In Alexander von Humboldt’s time, people spoke of research expeditions. If you discuss research mobility today, you are not simply talking about gaining new knowledge in far-off climes. On the motives for scientific migration: between location factors, career targets and professional networking.
When it suited him, Alexander von Humboldt was not averse to manipulating the truth somewhat. “Used to lengthy walking tours, I did perhaps describe the way as rather more laid out and charming to my fellow travellers than is actually the case,” the 19th century research genius admitted in retrospect. This quotation from Humboldt’s major opus “Kosmos” is bemusing. What is behind it? Is Humboldt, the exceptional, well-travelled scholar, conceivably warning coming generations of researchers against lengthy research journeys?
Certainly not. Alexander von Humboldt loved investigating the world: South America, Asia, no country was too far, no mountain too high. But the enthusiasm with which he set off into the unknown did not make him close his eyes to the downsides of research journeys. Whether we are talking about getting there or actually being abroad, the life of a mobile researcher is not always rosy – it was not in times past, nor is it now. With one major difference: in Humboldt’s day, travel abroad and research visits were a rare privilege. In 21st century Germany by contrast, travelling has become a national sport, and in the case of highly-qualified individuals, it has become compulsory to spend several years working abroad.
“Not all researchers go abroad because they have outgrown the German science system; plenty of them are there because they have not been able to get a job in Germany.”
Whether you are a humanities scholar, a natural scientist or an engineer – if you do not have any experience of working abroad, it is extremely difficult to make a successful career as a researcher in Germany today. Unless you are one of the tiny group of shining lights in your discipline, you are forced to don your walking boots. And where you head for is also a foregone conclusion: the United States. We know that the US is researcher destination number one, and we also know that doctoral candidates and postdocs are not only drawn there by a thirst for adventure and knowledge. They are fleeing from the lack of jobs in Germany, too. And we know, furthermore, that the description of the years spent abroad as a qualification phase is often just glossing over the fact that people are just waiting around until they can get a foothold in academia. Not all researchers go abroad because they have outgrown the German science system; plenty of them are there because they have not been able to get a job in Germany.
Distinction or blemish – nowadays, international mobility can mean both, which has led the Chairman of the Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) to point out the need for greater care and differentiation in this area. “A high degree of internationalism is not always a hallmark of quality; and internationalisation alone will not always increase the potential for scientific performance,” explained Peter Strohschneider in a keynote address on the topic of “International Mobility in Science” in November 2009. Mobility should not be an end in itself.
There is just one problem: the goals are not the same. What one researcher wants to achieve may not be what science in general is interested in. And what science in general is aiming for may not necessarily coincide with the plans of a country’s policy-makers. However, we can identify one common principle: mobility contributes to international networking amongst researchers and thus to the communication of science. The greater the degree of networking, the higher the benefit for the science location, and what this can mean in practice is shown by the results of an evaluation of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s research award programmes which was carried out in autumn 2009. Under these programmes, foreign researchers spend up to one year in Germany working together with the colleagues who nominated them for the award. Almost every award winner establishes a lasting cooperation with his host. Moreover, approximately 85 percent of the award winners publish joint contributions in renowned specialist journals with their hosts.
“If you are going to make significant researcher mobility one of the goals of a science nation, you have to provide good general conditions.”
These are findings that should reassure the Federal government. After all, they point in exactly the direction Berlin has been advocating in researcher exchange. “More than 90 percent of global knowledge is created outside of Germany. We want to tap this knowledge potential for the benefit of research in Germany,” says Federal Research Minister Annette Schavan in the foreword to the Federal government’s Internationalisation Strategy, which was passed at the beginning of 2008. Competition, markets and international responsibility are terms that occur so frequently in the paper that even the most cursory reader soon gets the message: mobility has become a national mission.
This does not leave much room for doubt. But doubt does exist. You can sometimes find it in blogs: “London yesterday, New York today, Rome tomorrow – it makes you feel like a VIP, although you’re really just on the run,” writes Viennese Assistant Professor and blogger Andreas Wimmel in his column on the career portal Academics.de, “Überleben in der Wissenschaft” (“Surviving in Academia”). He comes to the following conclusion: “Even though the deeper meaning or purpose of these stays, that is their importance or necessity for your own research, is gradually slipping out of focus, an academic year at a US elite university or various fellowships at excellent European institutions can be used to upgrade a scientific profile significantly or even, to some extent, to relativise inadequate or non-existent research achievements which, paradoxically, are often a direct result of the travelling circus itself ...”.
Distinction, blemish or, worst case scenario, even quality impediment. The effects of international mobility, it appears, are very diverse: If you are going to make significant researcher mobility one of the normative goals of a science nation, you have to provide good general conditions. To run and promote researcher exchange so that it benefits both the individual researcher and the location is no easy business. And it is arduous even for organisations like the Humboldt Foundation which have been living it for decades and have gradually perfected their selection criteria accordingly.
To find ways of getting the best researchers in the world to spend time in Germany was the Humboldt Foundation’s mission from the word go. For decades, the Bonn-based organisation has received public funding for this purpose. Since 2000, it has received a slightly larger annual amount; since 2008, a great deal more each year. One of the reasons for the budget increases is a new annual programme for some ten, hand-picked top researchers. The Foundation offers them an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. Those selected receive up to five million EUR for a period of five years, including a maximum annual salary of 180,000 EUR. Although sponsorship is only guaranteed for half a decade, it comes with the declared intention of retaining the top researchers in Germany on a long-term basis.
Is this programme still in line with the Foundation’s policywhich, so far, did not include permanent stays? According to the President of the Humboldt Foundation, this is not an issue. “Part of the Foundation’s mission is to promote Germany as a science location and make it more attractive for mobile researchers. Humboldt Professorships act on international junior researchers like a magnet – and thus on potential Humboldt Research Fellows as well. There is no conflict between our sponsorship programmes; on the contrary, they interact with one another,” says Helmut Schwarz.
“A few film stars may spend their lives jetting around the world, unattached and single, but this is not the everyday reality of most researchers.”
Only 19 Humboldt Professorships have been awarded to date, but the proportion of expenditure on this one programme has already hit a quarter of total budget expenditure. In the end, the Foundation will spend about 40 percent of its budget on the Humboldt Professorships. The mobility programmes will not suffer financially as a result, because the funding for the Humboldt Professorship is an addition to the budget.
There are, however, areas like the research fellowships which would benefit from better funding. Currently, Humboldt Fellows usually receive between about 2,100 and 2,300 EUR per month, plus various allowances. “This would have to be raised by at least 30 percent to be really attractive for the very best junior researchers. 3,000 EUR per month would be an appropriate sum,” comments the Foundation’s President.
Without doubt, the money would be well invested. There is a high price to be paid for life as a mobile researcher, and not just in terms of cash. “A few film stars may spend their lives jetting around the world, unattached and single, but this is not the everyday reality of most researchers,” says Ludger Pries. A Bochum-based researcher, he is one of the first of just a few experts in Germany to examine the area of transnational careers. Such careers involve people moving from one country to another or commuting between countries without settling in any one country permanently. This phenomenon is particularly common within the highly qualified workforce, and especially amongst researchers, of course.
“The lifestyle of a very large percentage of researchers is transnational in one way or another: when it comes to participating in academic exchange – taking part in conferences, reading scientific publications or establishing and maintaining personal contacts – nation states are not so important. Instead, people create networks across borders focusing on the topic areas and goals they are pursuing in their own academic work,” says Pries. Even so, constantly changing their place of residence and work is still not the norm for most researchers. “Politically and socially, the majority only establish themselves in the new society to a certain extent and still maintain long-term bonds with their country of origin. They usually have one firm base and undertake their tours of scientific discovery, excursions and missions from there,” says Pries.
There is far more to this than just sentimental attachment to home. It reflects the knowledge that success in a national science system is always linked to availability. If you want to be noticed by appointment boards you have to be part of the right local network and demonstrate your expertise regularly at the relevant specialist conferences.
Even if coaches have been replaced by cheap flights and hand-written correspondence by the Internet, in the 21st century, a transnational life still costs vast amounts of energy, time and money. But it can all be worthwhile. “The circumstances of my life, my relationship with two continents and with famous men over more than half a century have shaped me far more than my work, which has remained very incomplete,” wrote Alexander von Humboldt in 1842. This is not yesterday’s wisdom. It is just as relevant today or, to cite the author and Humboldt editor Hans-Magnus Enzensberger: “Alexander von Humboldt is a man for the 21st century."
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