Excellent science should not be a question of geography

Encouraging cooperation with Africa, defining clear rules for dealing with difficult partners like China and utilising the Humboldt Network to combat climate change: a conversation with the chemist and green energy expert Robert Schlögl about his goals on becoming the new President of the Humboldt Foundation and how you can complete your school leaving examinations and do a bricklaying apprenticeship at the same time.

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  • Interview: Georg Scholl
Porträtfoto von Robert Schlögl mit geographischen Zeichnungen

KOSMOS: Mr Schlögl, you are assuming office in the Humboldt Foundation’s 70th anniversary year, which falls in troubled times. Politicians are having to cope with a remit that ranges from restructuring power supplies to a new security regime. Science diplomacy and, by association, the Humboldt Foundation are faced with the threat of budgetary cuts in the coming years. What challenges are awaiting you as President of the Foundation?
ROBERT SCHLÖGL: Currently, the most important one is indeed to secure reliable financing. At the moment, the value of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is not sufficiently recognised in the political arena. Of course, they all know the name. But if you ask what the Foundation actually does, you are met with silence. And the thinking goes like this: if something has a budget of 150 million euros, it doesn’t matter if you take away the odd five million.

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Inauguration of the new president in Berlin

How do you want to persuade the politicians otherwise?
I have been advising politicians on the energy transition for a long time and I know my way around the business a bit. One should never suggest that parliamentarians don’t value science. But when it comes to setting priorities, they plump for things they feel confident about. After all, they have to be able to defend their decisions. I want to do more to ensure that the politicians who are responsible for the Foundation feel confident that they are espousing a good cause.

That’s easy when you are dealing with applied research, like green energy. The value of the Foundation’s worldwide network seems pretty abstract by comparison. How would you explain its usefulness to politicians?
Science only functions when it is a global undertaking. Gaining knowledge by falsification only works if you look at one and the same thing from different perspectives. If those perspectives are subject to discipline-specific or national restrictions, the bigger picture quickly gets lost. Climate change, for instance, touches on so many different aspects that it would be completely hopeless to try and fight it without adopting a holistic approach. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s network is exceptionally well positioned because it is neither oriented to a specific discipline nor along national lines. Everything is connected to everything else, as Humboldt once established.

Africa has enormous potential, not just as a source of green energy but also in the concomitant research and development. Research in Germany is missing out by not integrating this potential sufficiently.
Robert Schlögl

The Global South is being particularly hard hit by climate change. At the same time, these countries are under-represented in top-flight research, even to some extent in the Humboldt Network…
And to change that is one of my goals. Excellent science should not be a question of geography. But the conditions under which people work are very different. What we here consider to be excellent is simply difficult to accomplish when you are not working in a highly developed country. I have huge respect, for example, for the researchers I have met in Africa who achieve great things under really difficult conditions. Africa has enormous potential, not just as a source of green energy but also in the concomitant research and development. Research in Germany is missing out by not integrating this potential sufficiently.

In its 70-year history, the Foundation has managed to recruit alumni from more than 140 countries for its “network of trust”. In the case of Russia or China, people are now asking whether Germany has been too trusting of its partners…
The accusation of being too trusting is absolutely justified, in my opinion. I think Germany sometimes goes over the top in its desire to be international. And that even goes so far as to betray its own interests.

What needs to change in our dealings with a country like China?
This has nothing to do with individuals from China with whom we cooperate on a basis of trust. But in the last resort, a science system is, of course, part of a state system. And if the latter is geared towards autocratic world dominance, we must also ask ourselves whether we really want to place our trust in its hands. I don’t think so. I’m not in favour of isolation, but we have to agree on clear rules, first and foremost on the issue of intellectual property.

Human dignity should be protected everywhere. We must make that absolutely clear to our partners.
Robert Schlögl

The federal government strives for value-based foreign policy. Should the Foundation be taking an interest in human rights as well as academic standards?
The system of values in academia is based on respect. When I’m working with a researcher from a system in which the individual is not respected, I am faced with a fundamental conflict. Human dignity should be protected everywhere. We must make that absolutely clear to our partners. We are part of the western system of values and this system of values must be defended.

One problem common to all science systems is the pressure to compete and publish. What does this mean for the Foundation’s work?
This is a real failure in our system. If the aim is to gain knowledge, it is totally unproductive for researchers to always have to be on the lookout for the next paper in Science to be able to if they want to achieve the h-index score for their ongoing funding application. This makes the Humboldt Foundation’s task of identifying excellence ever more difficult. Is selling science an indication of excellence? Is that what impact means? When we are talking about genuinely original research, that is a very, very difficult question to answer because initially, at least, it has no impact whatsoever in terms of multiple citations.

So how can we go about making fair funding decisions?
You have to make the effort to evaluate individually, be absolutely clear about the selection criteria and come to a decision on the basis of verifiable arguments. Generally, I would like to see more discussion of content rather than who has written what about whom. I really dislike expert opinions that force you to study the precise choice of words in the very last sentence in order to discover what the reviewer is actually trying to tell you.

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Press release and video portrait

Robert Schlögl: “Germany must get out of the slow lane and into the fast lane”


The precise, or rather, the supposedly correct choice of words is becoming ever more important in university debates, too. How important is political correctness to you?
I think there is a tendency to expect academia to buckle down and behave exactly as certain segments of society want it to. That’s dreadful – because academia should really be a place for open and free debate, and universities a place where people learn to tolerate and thrash out differing points of view.

There is evidence to suggest that diversified teams produce better results. Is diversity an indispensable goal in enhancing the quality of research?
If we were to select people totally impartially, solely on the grounds of quality, the problem would solve itself. I know this happens with musicians. They have to audition behind a black curtain, so no-one knows anything about their attributes. Their music is heard, and a decision is made. I sometimes wish it were like this in science because we all have prejudices and let ourselves be influenced by them. German society in particular is not free of prejudice.

Which countries are better?
The United States, for example, Australia, and England, too, three countries in which I gained some experience of life and observed less prejudice. This may only be true on the surface, but integrating people from other cultures is certainly easier there than it is here.

You trained as a bricklayer. Did you yourself meet with resistance in academia?
No. But I have to say that I did my apprenticeship while I was still at school. I wasn’t the least interested in my schooling at the time, so I skived off and headed for the building site. My parents had to write a lot of excuse letters. Despite that, my final grades were still quite good, although I ended up with serious gaps in my education, of course (laughs). But I did get to know another type of everyday reality and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.

Your field of research is the energy transition. How well equipped is Germany for the transition?
When it comes to the energy transition, reliability is extremely important – because we are talking about facilities that are large, expensive and dangerous. You can’t afford to make mistakes. This is something we in this country are good at, dealing with large-scale, complex systems and designing them to be reliable. Where we fall down, is getting the intersection between regulation and technology right.

We need a healthy combination of German thoroughness and American hands on! That is one of the good things about academic exchange à la Humboldt. We can learn a great deal from each other.
Robert Schlögl

In what way?
Every day, we hear that we need to speed up. And, at the same time, we create new regulations in Germany that slow things down. New LNG terminals go into operation and then for some reason are initially only granted a licence to operate for four hours a day. What’s the point of that? No country in the world would hit on the idea of imposing such a limit on remedial action if there were a gas emergency.

Is over-regulation a locational disadvantage for Germany?
We simply restrict ourselves to a ridiculous extent with our regulatory framework conditions. There’s a lot of ideology floating around and that is completely useless when you are searching for new solutions. It’s a disadvantage in comparison with competitors like the United States. There they are much more casual about things and maybe end up making a load of mistakes. But they get on with it – quickly and pragmatically. Neither of these is typical of the German system. We need a healthy combination of German thoroughness and American hands on! That is one of the good things about academic exchange à la Humboldt. We can learn a great deal from each other.

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