Newsletter 3/2013

A Network for Europe

The Humboldt Foundation as a blueprint for Europe? An idea worth debating, says President Helmut Schwarz. Humboldt Kosmos spoke with him about the prospects for a European research policy to succeed against national egoism and bureaucratic omnipotence.

Ein Netzwerk für Europa
Photo: Visum

Kosmos: Professor Schwarz, a 60th anniversary is usually a reason to take a look back. Let’s take a look into the future instead. If you were free to dream, what would the Humboldt Foundation of tomorrow look like?
Schwarz: A dream? Well, there is one I can think of, but it’s probably more of a daydream. Imagine if there were no German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, but a European one instead – completely autonomous, not beset by those flash-in-the-pan recommendations politicians often come up with, an organisation dedicated to creating space for researchers or helping to overcome national egoism through cooperation etc. I’m sure that a Europe-wide institution organised according to these principles could avoid a fair few research policy errors.

Kosmos: Such as?
Schwarz: In many European countries, researchers have very limited autonomy because research topics are politically determined and defined by research funding organisations through their allocation policies. Take a look at the academic research landscape in the UK, for example, not to mention the bureaucratic hurdles in France or the desolate situation – due to financial and structural issues – in Eastern Europe or in the Mediterranean countries: not only is the younger generation there being robbed of any prospects for the future; the governments of these countries are endangering their future as a whole, both by insufficiently funding education, science and research and because the fertilising domain of basic research has been cut back or is increasingly being disempowered.

Kosmos: So it all boils down to a lack of money?
Schwarz: No, because the problems are not exclusively of a financial nature; they are also linked to attitudes. Take the Humboldt Foundation: in terms of its budget, it’s almost insignificant. But we are visible and are effective because we are a sort of yeast in the academic dough: we set processes in motion that are designed to be sustainable and, by sponsoring individuals on the basis of excellence, have an invigorating effect on institutions – a colleague once used the term academic rejuvenation therapy. Many countries do not have any yeast to activate development. If the Humboldt Foundation were a blueprint, be it for a pan-European institution or just on a national level in other countries, many mistakes could be avoided.

Helmut Schwarz
Helmut Schwarz, President of the
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 

Photo: Humboldt Foundation / Eric

Kosmos: Isn’t the European Research Council already doing the same job as a European Humboldt Foundation?
Schwarz: Only to a limited degree. Although I really admire the ERC for everything it has wrested from the Commission in Brussels in just a few years and all the good it has done for basic research in Europe, and despite the fact that the ERC’s programmes contain several Humboldt-like elements – such as excellence-based, individualised sponsorship –, there are a number of significant differences. An organisation with a programmatic approach that demands, across the board, that topics must per se meet the requirements of pioneering research, that proposals worth funding must bear the label “frontier research”, is in danger of ultimately succumbing to fashionable trends and shying away from approving high-risk scenarios. Moreover, the ERC acts almost exclusively within Europe, while the Humboldt Foundation operates worldwide. And finally, I fail to see any evidence of the networking idea that is the very essence of the Humboldt Foundation in the notions emerging from Brussels.

Kosmos: In the Humboldt Network, the shared experience of Germany is very important to establishing a common identity. If Humboldtians spent their time in Rome, or in Brussels, or in Munich or London, this unifying element would be lost. Would a European network still be feasible?
Schwarz: We don’t know, and it’s probably not even possible to predict with any certainty whether the ties Humboldt Fellows and Research Award Winners have with Germany today, and which make them into bridge-builders in a network of trust, will continue to be that unifying element in the future as well. We must acknowledge that researchers’ careers will become increasingly international and significantly less shaped by bipolar interactions. The Foundation is responding to this trend by enabling Humboldtians to spend up to three months at a European institution if their research plan justifies it. But whether this will lead to a kind of “European loyalty” is questionable.

“The idea of a European research area is completely irrelevant.”

Kosmos: You don’t believe in the charisma of the European Research Area?
Schwarz: No, indeed I don’t. Not only does the notion that geographically defined research areas should enhance attraction potential seem artificial to me, I actually think it’s completely irrelevant, because when young researchers are deciding where they want to work in the next few years, they are influenced by entirely different considerations. A legal scholar, for example, might choose Yale, whilst an economist might prefer Chicago; a chemist might want to go to Berkeley or a brain researcher to MIT – it’s the individual institutions, or to put it bluntly a particular working group or a person that will be the draw. It’s not the American research area that an individual chooses – and this is equally true of research areas elsewhere in the world.

Kosmos: Let’s dream on a bit. Who would fund a European Humboldt Foundation?
Schwarz: There’s no question that the money would have to come from Brussels – but then we would inevitably have to do battle with all the exasperating problems of a juste retour system: quotas for countries or minorities, and extraneous, politically motivated considerations would almost inevitably infiltrate the decision-making process. The great strength of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation – that it operates autonomously on the basis of a tried and tested founding mandate – would first have to be laboriously fought over. And I rather doubt that the Commission in Brussels would be willing to grant academia and its funding organisations extensive concessions again.

Helmut Schwarz
Helmut Schwarz 
Photo: Humboldt Foundation / Eric

Kosmos: How come the ERC manages to transcend national egoism?
Schwarz: I suspect that there are several reasons for this. First, the ERC’s budget in Brussels is so small as to be almost imperceptible. Secondly, the ERC occasionally serves as a wonderful excuse to demonstrate how adventurous the Commission was in setting it up. But let’s not forget that ways and means have meanwhile been found to domesticate the ERC. How this experiment, which was a long time coming, will end, and whether this “foreign body” within the EU administration will be able to maintain or even improve its structure in the long term and develop into the yeast dough that some of its founders saw in it remains to be seen.

Kosmos: You sound sceptical.
Schwarz: Not really sceptical, more realistic – permanently overcoming national egoism, curtailing the ambit of agencies and administrative offices that have grown powerful, creating generous space for research – that’s going to be a Herculean challenge. Rather than a European foundation, I would consider it more useful to establish a network of nationally operating, competing, mutually inspiring Humboldt Foundations. All of the countries would benefit from that, and therefore so would Europe.

Kosmos: The Humboldt Foundation as a sort of European franchise model?
Schwarz: Why not? I’m certain that a network of that sort would promote international exchange, which would also strengthen the European research landscape.

Kosmos: That doesn’t sound sceptical at all …
Schwarz: True, and my attitude is simply a response to the question you asked at the start, about what I dream of and what I don’t, what I consider realistic and desirable.

Interview: Georg Scholl


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Chemist Professor Professor Dr. Helmut Schwarz has been President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation since 2008. He teaches and conducts research at TU Berlin, and is considered one of the world’s leading experts in the field of molecular chemistry. He has worked and taught in the UK, Israel, the USA, France, Japan, Australia, Austria and Switzerland, amongst others.