Focus areas in 2021

The Corona pandemic has changed the world. With its projects and focus areas in 2021, the Foundation want to better exploit its potential and create the preconditions for successful work in the future.

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Greeting card: Year 2021 and confetti

The Corona pandemic has changed the world and will continue to challenge our societies in 2021. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and its international network are keen to help find solutions to these challenges and to view the crisis also as an opportunity for change. What new forms of international collaboration and research mobility do we need? How can we utilise the new potential offered by digitisation and artificial intelligence? How can we promote sustainability and diversity? How can we extend our network and better exploit and showcase its collective expertise? And how can we continuously modernise and optimise our activities and our organisation in order to meet all the challenges? It is precisely questions like these that are addressed in the Foundation’s new strategy, which was adopted last year and has yielded the focus areas for our work in 2021.

New Year's Message 2021 from Hans-Christian Pape, President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

Continuing network development to bring together the best in the world

  • Academic mobility
    Not least by international standards, climate change calls into question our traditional forms of mobility. Covid-19 forced us to adopt quick, short-term and even radical answers to replacing physical mobility by networked knowledge and digital exchange. The Foundation responded with flexible solutions that saw research fellowships starting independent of location, networking events digitised, and academic projects conducted by digital exchange. Building on the experience of the last year and based on a scientific study of international research mobility, the Foundation will draw up new concepts for combining the advantages of personal encounters with the opportunities inherent in the virtual arena. Hybrid forms should unite digital and personal exchange, whereby digital tools are not just a means of facilitating communication. The exchange of data and knowledge in digital networks is another of the Humboldt Foundation’s focus areas in 2021. Greater utilisation of digital tools will also be an important component of the sustainability strategy that is currently being prepared and will be published in 2021.

  • Recruitment and network development
    The Foundation intends to continue developing its network and to harness new potential. Alongside new academic mobility concepts, the Henriette Herz Scouting Programme is an important building block. It enables especially coveted international talents to be recruited directly and extends the circle of Humboldt hosts in Germany. It also targets younger researchers who benefit particularly from the option of being directly recruited from abroad and integrated in the German Humboldt Network. In this way, the Foundation is continuing to inject new momentum into internationalising German science.
    In order to make the selection of new Humboldtians more efficient and support the members of the network, the Foundation’s digital tools will also be refined. This will include advisory services for applicants, current sponsorship recipients and alumni.

  • Reinforcing sub-networks
    Science is always also conducted in national and regional contexts which generate certain issues and general conditions, enhancing the benefit to society locally. At the same time, international exchange encourages a diversity of perspectives and thus scientific progress. Through initiatives like the new research hubs in Africa, the international Humboldt Network is therefore being reinforced on a regional basis, promoting exchange on an even playing field and anchorage in society.

  • Artificial intelligence
    Within its network, the Foundation sponsors numerous researchers working on artificial intelligence. Particularly through the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship for Artificial Intelligence, the Foundation thus supports the federal government’s AI Strategy. It wants to help develop a new field by sponsoring very well established, but still young, researchers who can boast an unusual career path. The aim is to create sustainable structures in the orbit of these sponsorship recipients in which the fundamentals and applications of AI can be explored in the most diverse fields whilst also nurturing tomorrow’s talents so that the entire research area can be strengthened and established in Germany. In this context, it is not just technical questions that are due to be answered. The social, legal and ethical dimensions are also the subject of scrutiny in order to comprehensively investigate and harness the opportunities inherent in AI for our future.

Generating value and reinforcing connections in the network

  • Diversity
    Diversity is part of the Foundation’s DNA and its international, interdisciplinary network. A variety of opinions and perspectives as well as collaboration in mixed teams are essential for academic success. Moreover, at the Foundation, diversity means equality of opportunity, which is the prerequisite for diversity and its advantages to evolve and be utilised. By drawing up a diversity strategy and conducting a scientific analysis of gender potential in different countries, the Foundation will lay the groundwork for further optimising its sponsorship activities with the aim of increasing diversity within its network. Through its campaign #ProgressDiversity in 2021, the Foundation will also promote the issue by means of studies, editorial content and examples from its network.


Making the network productive and communicating its value to society

  • Science and society
    The Foundation campaigns for the importance of international cooperation and showcases the contribution made by the interdisciplinary Humboldt Network to mastering the current crisis as well as the major challenges facing humankind. By providing individual support for outstanding research the Foundation will continue to help devise solutions to enhance our societies’ resilience and combat fundamental problems like climate change by elaborating and reinforcing sustainable forms of economic activity and living. With new formats such as a major international conference series, the Humboldt Topic X Conference with an annually changing focus that will launch in 2021 on the topic of Virtual Networks, the Foundation is giving fresh impetus to the conversation on science policy and society. The planned Humboldt Residency Programme, a kind of temporary interdisciplinary, international think tank in which a group of selected researchers from the Humboldt Network will get together over several weeks to address an important societal problem, is a further example.

  • Science communication
    Just how important science communication is has been clearly illustrated by the Corona pandemic. The Foundation campaigns for fact-based, knowledge-based action and underpins understanding of the processes involved in acquiring scientific knowledge. It fosters, for example, long-term partnerships, such as that with the Science Media Center Germany and its work in the Alliance of Science Organisations, grants awards for alumni initiatives and runs projects like the Communication Lab for Exchange between Research and Media which was launched last year. In 2021, these activities will be continued and expanded, including a new collaboration with “Wissenschaft im Dialog” and the joint summer school “Communicating Science” for young researchers.

Setting the Foundation’s sights on the future as a networking organisation

  • Organisational development
    Be it growing international competition, changed mobility requirements, new research fields, regional political challenges or strains on the science system, such as the overloaded review system, the Foundation must keep developing as an organisation and improving its tools. With its new strategy and projects to modernise and digitise its activities, the Foundation has already rejuvenated itself as an organisation and employer on many levels and had its standards certified. As in the past, it continues to focus on the performance of its headquarters and on concentrating its activities on the strategically important topics involved in developing and exploiting its network. This process will be continued, expanding and, where necessary, augmenting the Foundation’s portfolio. Internal processes will also be regularly scrutinised and improved. One particular focus of organisational development in 2021 will be placed on sustainability and diversity as well as digitisation. Moreover, the Foundation’s profile as an employer is set to be sharpened and refined.


The world is changing – and the Foundation is, too. International cooperation, science- and fact-based action as well as trust and solidarity across borders are more important than ever. This is what the Foundation and its network stand for. With our projects and focus areas in 2021, we want to better exploit our potential and create the preconditions for successful work in the future, as well. Besides the difficulties and hardships, the crisis year 2020 showed what resources of power and dynamics of change are inherent in research, in the Humboldt Network and the Foundation itself – facilitated, not least, by the flexible support provided by the Foundation’s partners and funders. In combination with medical progress and the development of effective vaccines, this all allows us to look ahead with optimism to 2021.