“Diversity of perspectives makes all the difference”

With its #ProgressDiversity campaign, the Humboldt Foundation is working to boost diversity in science and in the support it provides for outstanding, talented researchers. Interview with Judith Wellen, head of the Humboldt Foundation’s Strategy and External Relations Department, on the search for international talent, the power of diversity and the Foundation’s network of excellence.

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Humboldt Foundation: Ms. Wellen, where do you see talent that is waiting to be discovered?
Judith Wellen: Generally speaking, talent is spread pretty evenly. Nonetheless, there are individuals who don’t enjoy certain privileges, have a significantly longer journey and must make greater efforts to reach the same goal. This also applies to us as a knowledge system. However, we as a society and perhaps especially as a science system are dependent upon the best minds – irrespective of gender, social background, ethnicity, age or way of life. In light of this, the question is: Can we really – looking at this from a competitive angle – afford to overlook talented researchers?  I don’t think so.

What role could the Humboldt Foundation play in this connection?
The Foundation maintains a network of more than 30,000 individuals we have sponsored – all of them excellent researchers from more than 140 countries and a wide range of disciplines. Since we are a networking organisation, gathering ideas, findings and knowledge from many different international discussions, and thinking forward together have always been at the heart of the Foundation. In short: Our task as a foundation is to establish links between brilliant minds around the world so that the diversity of these individuals' backgrounds and ways of thinking gives rise to a diversity of excellent ideas. To achieve this, we are striving to offer all individuals we sponsor optimal conditions for conducting their research. For us, this naturally includes paying the same fellowship allowances to all funding recipients during their respective research stay, irrespective of whether they are in a same-sex or heterosexual partnership – just to mention one example. However, the Humboldt Foundation also cannot and will not be satisfied with just replicating the status quo.

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About the camapign #ProgressDiversity: More diversity for science

The question is, where to begin?
It is indisputable that having a multitude of perspectives makes all the difference any time we address complex problems. We also stand for this as an organisation with a global network of leading researchers. Putting this diversity into practice in real life means first and foremost raising – hopefully – many smart questions, listening to one another – and then finding tailor-made solutions. One size does not fit all.

What do you mean by that?
For us, it is important that we continually ask ourselves with a critical eye: Are we really finding all the talented individuals out there? For me, this also raises the question – based on which and whose definition of "normal" we agree upon – of what talent is and what we mean by quality. We as members of a science system consider ourselves to be a meritocracy. This includes continually addressing the question of what these merits actually are that we refer back to in order to be equitable when granting opportunities. What helps us here is our close contact with our very diverse funding recipients and naturally the insights this gives us into other science systems around the world.

What does that mean in concrete terms?
We have clearly defined the advancement of diversity as an objective of our Foundation strategy. For us, excellence and diversity are inextricably linked. This also means using campaigns such as #ProgressDiversity to raise overall awareness of the subject of diversity in the science system and to promote it and draw attention to examples and models – and to thresh out the best ideas together.

What does that mean?
For us, it is particularly important to think and discuss diversity on an international level. In Germany, for example, the diversity discussion strongly focuses on the aspect of gender – which is undeniably absolutely essential. However, when you look at our international network, it becomes quite clear that there are many facets to diversity. The importance of diversity in disciplines, for example, or diversity of age, sexual identity or social background can vary greatly from region to region. These kinds of insights are extremely valuable when we as a foundation specifically work, for example, to make our offerings attractive to all talented individuals and use innovative ideas to systematically expand them with an eye to various aspects of diversity. It is our aim to focus on and address new target groups even more than ever – in our role as employer and as a funding organisation.

How do you plan to proceed?
I feel it is important to create new paths for accessing the support we offer and to search for talented individuals in a truly active way. Women, for example, are sometimes less self-assured than men when assessing their own qualifications and excellence. A similar scenario can be seen among people who embark upon a research career as a “FirstGen” – as the first in their family to receive academic training. We are already breaking new ground with, for example, our Henriette Herz Scouting Programme: In this programme, selected researchers from Germany who act as scouts directly propose up to three international partners of their choice for a Humboldt Research Fellowship and bring them on board to work with them in their teams. In this situation, the first person a scout proposes should be a female scientist or scholar. We want to use this programme to recruit talented individuals for our network – individuals who might possibly never have thought of submitting an application to us. Conversely, thanks to their better acquaintance with these individuals and their biographies, scouts can discover talented researchers which we otherwise might not have had on our radar. In addition, we are working on a number of measures and projects revolving around diversity topics. For example, we are having the situation of women in various countries examined as part of a gender potential analysis to reveal pitfalls and obstacles to research careers and international mobility. Based on this, we can hopefully adjust our offerings with greater precision to the needs in the respective situation on a data-driven basis in the future.

When will you have achieved your objectives in diversity matters?
I am not only aiming to identify, approach and, ideally, win over all talented individuals. We – as a science system, as a society – must also ensure that these many diverse voices are also actually heard. Perspective matters: It is not enough to have everyone sit at one table so that the picture looks right. We should be satisfied only when everyone can truly take part in and contribute to the conversation.

updated on 7 July 2021


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