Germany joins battle for Nobels

October 19, 2001

The THES examines how countries are turning brain drain into brain gain.

The cosmopolitan US is proving a hard act for Germany to follow, Jennie Brookman writes.

The German scientific community was rightly proud when fellow countryman Wolfgang Ketterle was named one of this year's winners of the Nobel prize for physics. But there was one damper: Ketterle, 43, was the fourth German Nobel scientist in as many years to work in the United States.

He was among the one in seven German high-flyers who emigrate to the US after gaining their doctorates at home, according to statistics published by the German education ministry this year.

After postdoctoral research at Munich University and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Ketterle went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1990 as a postdoctoral associate, joining the 5,000 German academics who leave for the US each year. Like one-third of these emigres, Ketterle has not returned. In 1997, he turned down an offer to become director of the Max Planck Institute.

Earlier this year, German education minister Edelgard Bulmahn tried to tackle the issue head-on. She went to Silicon Valley to meet more than a hundred German exiles to try to persuade them to return. She promised to turn the "brain drain into a brain gain" by making German universities an "international melting pot" for top scientists from Germany and from abroad.

At the heart of this strategy is a reform of pay and conditions for academics to speed young academic careers. Junior professorships, open to scholars immediately after their doctorate, will bypass the Habilitation , the time-consuming second qualification that is a prerequisite for a professorial title.

The reform will also introduce performance-related pay in place of the current system in which salaries automatically increase with age.

Bulmahn pledged E87 million (£55 million) for schemes to attract foreign academics by creating guest professorships, exporting German degrees abroad and developing international networks with foreign universities.

Many emigres agree with her strategy. But will it be enough? A position in the US offers greater independence, a faster career track and closer cooperation between science and industry. German high-flyers also know that much of their homeland's higher education system is doggedly resisting reform.

Hubert Markl, president of the Max-Planck Society, has pinpointed Germany's problem. A mixture of cosmopolitanism and elite institutions has helped the US reap a large number of Nobel winners. Germany has the elite research institutes, but lacks the cosmopolitanism, he said. This is demonstrated by rightwing attacks on foreigners in Germany, including researchers. There has also been resistance to immigration reforms. At the moment, immigration rules mean that Germany helps educate excellent foreign scientists but then forces them to leave the country once they graduate.

The terror attacks on the United States, in which some foreign students registered at German universities were allegedly involved, and the resulting profiling investigation of Arab students by German police to track down sleeper terrorists, will not aid Bulmahn's dream of making Germany an international research melting pot.

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