Heading for the Big Leagues

Worldwide competition to attract the best researchers is fierce. German universities are increasingly joining the fray – and succeeding in recruiting vast numbers of top academics.

Text: Armin Himmelrath (published: Kosmos 98/2011)

It was about a year ago that Hannes Leitgeb faced his big decision. Leitgeb, now 39, had been conducting research as a philosopher and mathematician in Bristol, UK, for five years; then his two children reached school age. “To be honest, we weren’t really sure about the school system in Britain,” says Leitgeb. That it could really guarantee a consistently high standard of teaching seemed too uncertain to the family. And so he and his wife sought an alternative. As one of the world’s leading scientific philosophers he was spoilt for choice – four offers were piled up on his desk. Should the family go to Stanford and settle, at least for a few years, in California? Or to Groningen in the Netherlands, where the university enjoys an excellent reputation among philosophers? Or might it perhaps be better to stay in Bristol, after all? The family council finally agreed on the fourth option, says Hannes Leitgeb – LMU Munich.

Career histories like Leitgeb’s are common among academics: they are always on the move, transferring from one research facility to another – all over the world. Sometimes personal reasons play a part, but usually better research conditions are the motivation for relocating. More staff, more modern laboratories, an inspiring environment, outstanding colleagues, funding for research: all these factors can decisively influence an academic’s decision in favour of a particular location. Universities often compete fiercely with each other for top researchers. After many years in which the field was mainly dominated by Anglo-American universities, Germany, too, is increasingly often playing in the big leagues.

As in the case of Hannes Leitgeb: in his work, he combines logic and philosophy with mathematical proof by formulating philosophical issues as precise mathematical models. This interdisciplinary approach generates new ideas and makes philosophical thinking more transparent because its assumptions are translated into mathematical formulae – a specialism with a future. At Munich’s “Excellence University”, Leitgeb is now setting up the “Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy – Language and Cognition”; the centre has already created 25 jobs.

“We chose Munich for a whole set of reasons that came together and complemented each other ideally,” says Hannes Leitgeb. First of all, there was the fact that the LMU chair was advertised as an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. This award was announced by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with the aim of attracting world-class researchers to Germany. Academics appointed as Humboldt Professors receive 3.5 million EUR if their work is in a theoretical discipline and as much as 5 million EUR if their work is in an experimental discipline. The money is provided for five years and, in addition to the professor’s salary (up to 180,000 EUR annually), mainly covers the costs of laboratories, personnel and experiments to enable the establishment of an effective and successful research group. “The Humboldt Professorship didn’t just level the field between the four competing offers, it gave LMU a clear advantage,” says Hannes Leitgeb. Another point in Munich’s favour, he explains, was the city’s great tradition in logic and scientific theory – and, of course, its proximity to Salzburg, where Leitgeb was born. “It was a little bit like a homecoming for me.”

The manner in which the university wooed the philosopher demonstrates how seriously German institutions are taking the contest to attract the finest minds: for example, Munich’s Vice President with responsibility for appointments travelled to Bristol especially to discuss the appointment. And that the career prospects of Leitgeb’s wife would play an important part in the negotiations was understood from the outset: in this approach, termed the “dual career principle”, a job offer is made not only to the researcher, but also to his or her partner (see also Family Planning for Academics). This meant that his wife, a mathematician, also had the option of lecturing at the university. “From the executive board to the dean, from the administrative departments to our colleagues, at all times we felt that everyone was making a concerted, serious effort,” says Hannes Leitgeb. “Everyone was operating to the highest professional standards, it was comparable to Stanford.”

A categorical desire to recruit outstanding researchers – is that alone the recipe that German universities need to attract excellent researchers and preferably also retain them? There are three things a university needs in order to be attractive to top-flight, international researchers and play in the big leagues, says Gereon Fink, Pro-Rector of the University of Cologne. His remit within the university’s management includes promoting international contacts which may ideally lead to the appointment of outstanding researchers. “A university has to have gained an international reputation based on first-class research; it must offer working conditions that compare well internationally and it must be flexible in the use of its budgets for recruiting eminent researchers.” Fink’s list clearly illustrates the need to cooperate with policy makers: while the researchers themselves are responsible for academic quality and the universities for working conditions, the basic conditions are created externally – by those responsible for research policy. “The main thing we expect from politics is that we are given financial planning security paired with extensive autonomy,” says Gereon Fink. “Science and research need freedom and flexibility!”

Programmes such as the Humboldt Professorships, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation since 2008, are a significant addition to basic university funding. “With this award we are making an important contribution to securing a permanent place for German research and universities at the forefront of international academia,” said Education Minister Annette Schavan as she welcomed the new Humboldt Professors in the spring of this year. Renowned, top-class researchers are not only important to universities for prestige reasons. Experience has shown that eminent scientists and scholars attract other top researchers in their field. So if a university has an expert, a powerful network of renowned researchers will quickly form around him or her – researchers often speak of structure-forming components.

Word of such things gets around. Having moved to Munich, philosopher Hannes Leitgeb confirms that researchers abroad are certainly aware that, unlike many other countries, Germany is still investing in education and universities rather than cutting funding, as is the case, for example, in the UK. Of course, the existence of programmes like the Humboldt Professorships does not mean that the funding situation of German universities leaves nothing to be desired: Humboldt Professor Jürgen Margraf of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, for example, believes that German universities are in many cases massively underfunded, which is why he demands considerably better financial support: “Not five or ten, but 50 percent above the current level would make a significant difference, with annual rate increases on top. That’s what is necessary if we’re going keep up with countries such as Switzerland or the Netherlands.”

Jürgen Margraf is internationally regarded as the leading expert in the field of clinical psychology and psychotherapy; he specialises in anxiety disorders. Following professorships in Berlin and Dresden, he transferred to Basel University Hospital in 1999, because he was “frustrated by the fossilisation of the German higher education system.” He spent ten years there as chair holder and head of the Department of Clinical Psychology. “Bochum contacted me there and asked whether I might like to apply for a Humboldt Professorship,” he recalls. And when he took another look at Germany he noticed that, in the meantime, a great deal had changed. “The clinical infrastructure in Bochum was and is excellent, the working conditions are right, the Rectorate is totally committed to psychological research,” says Margraf. So he moved to the Ruhr area to take up the Humboldt Professorship in the summer semester 2010, “and to be honest, I was braced for possible problems, after all, a Humboldt Professorship is very generously funded – and then there was the W salary bracket which meant that younger professors, in particular, were even having to accept salary cuts across the board in Germany.” Margraf is referring to the new classification of professors in public sector employment law which in most cases results in a lower basic salary.

But those problems failed to materialise; instead, Margraf was warmly welcomed and entered an environment where quality is highly valued. “Players’ agents like the ones you see in football aren’t normally found in academia”, says the psychologist, “but perhaps it’s worth considering whether universities shouldn’t sometimes also act like headhunters in order to attract especially talented people to especially interesting places.” Family aspects played an important role in Jürgen Margraf’s decision to return to Germany, too: his wife Silvia Schneider, a professor of child and adolescent psychology, was also offered a chair in Bochum. The couple has been working on joint research projects for years; the combination of childhood and adult research has the advantage of covering the entire human lifespan. A geographical separation would have been unacceptable to them. “Formerly, that would have been derided as nepotism, but fortunately, things have changed and, at least at Ruhr-Universität, it’s now handled as it would be in the USA,” says Jürgen Margraf. “The university management is rightly very proud of its dual career programme.” Margraf nonetheless still sees some problems, for example the unduly low salary level for junior researchers, the basic equipment of the laboratories, which is noticeably inferior to that in neighbouring countries, the greater administrative burden placed on researchers and the difficulties of transferring pension rights across state borders. At the end of their careers, researchers currently find themselves with individual small pension entitlements in each country in which they have ever worked. That’s almost impossible to keep track of, let alone plan with.

An issue of which university managers are well aware. “If cleverly interpreted, German public sector employment law presents no hindrance to attracting top-class researchers,” says Cologne’s Pro-Rector for Research, Gereon Fink. His hypothesis: if everything else fits, a transfer will not fall through on account of pension issues. More important to academia’s greatest talents are often the cooperation opportunities that arise at their new workplace: international research stars expect “excellent networking with non-university institutions”, as Fink calls it, as a matter of course. More straightforwardly, one might say: good researchers go where other good researchers already are. In this respect, things are significantly easier for universities which are located in regions with high academic density and which make active and creative use of this geographic proximity.

One example is the “Göttingen Research Campus”, an alliance the university has formed with eight internationally renowned research institutions from the region. Animosities are not an issue here, university and non-university institutes collaborate closely. “The university’s traditionally broad range of subjects is complemented by five Max Planck Institutes, the German Primate Centre and the German Aerospace Centre”, says the President of the University of Göttingen, Ulrike Beisiegel, “plus the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities and associated partners such as other educational and science institutions in the region.” A creative, vibrant and research-oriented environment that works in favour of the city and the university. It is, therefore, no coincidence, says Beisiegel, that one of the world’s leading experts in energy research, Alec Wodtke, has come to Göttingen. The university and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry jointly appointed the American scientist – and they jointly benefit from his expertise.

Wodtke, too, is a Humboldt Professor, and for him, too, it was a return: “Physical chemistry in Göttingen is outstanding, and I was already familiar with the city from a two-year research period I spent here as a post-doc in the 80s,” says the chemist. That was also when he met his German wife, “and that also made the move to Göttingen in early 2010 a little easier,” says Wodtke with a smile. Nonetheless, the decision to move from the University of Santa Barbara in California to Lower Saxony was not entirely easy for him. “You have to think it through very carefully”, says Alec Wodtke, “because you do have to consider that moving and setting up a new working group will take about a year.”

In addition, the experiments the American chemist performs in the field of catalysis research are not available off the shelf. “You have to develop and build it all yourself, design the machines and train the staff,” explains Wodtke. An extremely important factor in his decision to move to Göttingen was, therefore, the question of whether the experience and technology which he could utilise in his experiments were available onsite – and they were. “Our working group includes, for example, two qualified precision engineers,” the chemist recounts with unmistakable enthusiasm. “That’s great and typically German – that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the USA!” The specialists develop tailor-made devices and machines for the researchers.

Two years ago, when Wodtke told his colleagues in California that he was moving to Germany, they often replied: “Wow, you’re really courageous!” But courage, laughs the chemist, has absolutely nothing to do with it – although he can understand that there may be something like a “German fear factor”, a certain apprehensiveness regarding Germany. Before his first stay, he admits, he also felt this apprehension, fuelled by the burden of the country’s history and a certain scepticism about Germans; but once he began to learn the language and meet Germans he quickly got over it. “A researcher knows no bounds”, says Alec Wodtke, “and it is absolutely fascinating to transcend barriers – be they in one’s own subject area, or the cultural hurdles when changing university.” Of course, he says, it is rather easier when the new location, in his case Göttingen, has a centuries-old scientific tradition to offer: houses where the Nobel Prize winners Werner Heisenberg and Max Born, two of the 20th century’s most important physicists, lived and conducted research. And, says Wodtke, “an observatory from which astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauß once gazed at the stars.”

Does he have a recipe for attracting good academics from around the world to Germany? Alec Wodtke doesn’t have to think for long. “There are three main points,” says the chemist. “Firstly, the openness of the universities. Secondly, reducing that vague fear of Germany, preferably through numerous, early contacts. And thirdly, one should ideally fall in love with a German woman.” At least regarding the first two points the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is doing an excellent job, he says, by firmly planting Germany as an outstanding location for research in the consciousness of the international academic community.

Its quota of Nobel Prize winners alone shows that working to attract top-flight researchers is worthwhile: a total of 48 members of this august group were funded and invited to Germany for research stays by the Humboldt Foundation long before their nominations, and that number is constantly increasing – this year alone, three new Nobel Prize winners joined the list.