A Model Student With the Odd Blip

A Comment by Hans-Christian Pape

Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Professor Dr Hans-Christian Pape is President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and head of the Department of Neurophysiology at the University of Münster.

Hans-Christian Pape (Photo: Humboldt Foundation/Mario Wezel)

Lots of us remember our school days and the rituals surrounding school reports. There we sat staring cheerfully or apprehensively at our newest grades, usually getting roughly what we had expected. Sometimes a grade was a bit lower than we had hoped. Real surprises – a top mark instead of an average one – were few and far between.

News from the Humboldt Foundation 

Now, the international visiting researchers sponsored by the Humboldt Foundation have handed us our report. The responses in the survey entitled “Germany from the outside” are more than pleasing. From science-friendliness and tolerance via progressiveness and democracy to gender equality – the marks are all very good. Even our sense of humour, childcare provision and, amazingly, German rail are praised. “Deutsche Bahn is the best in the world,” writes one fellow from India.

Oops, thinks the reader at this point at the latest. Germany is like a model student who, apart from getting the expected top mark in maths, gets a surprisingly high mark in sport, as well. The explanation for this is the regional perspective on Germany: Depending what part of the world researchers come from, certain things do not strike them as negatively as they do when considered from a critical internal standpoint. This can help to put one’s own views into perspective.

Praise and criticism have to be classified according to regional experiences and expectations. Humboldt sponsorship- recipients literally come from all over the world – from more than 140 countries. They judge Germany particularly in comparison with their own countries. Asian Humboldtians find Germans extremely open whilst sponsorship- recipients from South America think Germans tend to be rather reserved. Indian, Chinese and American fellows are positive in their assessment of our childcare provision, Australians and Scandinavians less so.

Insights of this kind can be a valuable guide to the kind of tailored research marketing for defined target groups that emphasises particular strengths by regional comparison. At the same time, they help to identify what needs to be taken into account in order to ensure that guests from specific countries feel at home here.

Irrespective of the survey participants’ regional experiences, very good marks are awarded for research infrastructure, research funding and science-friendliness in general. The same holds true for internationality, which has increased as a result of the Excellence Initiative. This should encourage us to keep pursuing this path. But there are also points of criticism that are cited by the majority of those surveyed, irrespective of their countries of origin, especially bureaucracy, language barriers, prospects for junior researchers and social integration in everyday life – occasionally, also, the excessively strict hierarchies in German research. And the few, but unmistakable, responses regarding hostility towards foreigners give us pause for thought. The increasing strength of extreme right-wing, populist movements has not passed our guests by unnoticed.

So, this report day is not only a reason to celebrate but also gives us something to think about. We can feel pleased with all the praise we’ve received and our great strengths in the international locational contest. That we can use for promotional purposes! But the criticisms of bureaucracy and the prospects for junior researchers tell us where the model student, Germany, urgently needs to improve.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 110/2019

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