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International careers

Germany’s research landscape is gaining popularity among international researchers. The reasons for this are manifold.

© Sven Müller/Humboldt-Stiftung - Research, Emmanuelle Charpentier

The fact that Emmanuelle Marie Charpentier is one of the best in her discipline had long been apparent, but her career really took off when the microbiologist and biochemist began conducting research in Germany too. In 2012, the French scientist accepted the offer of a professorship at Hannover Medical School. Two years later, she moved to the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig and was awarded a prestigious Humboldt Professorship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. That gave further momentum to the 45-year-old Parisian‘s career. She has since received a number of awards for her innovative work on clinical infectious diseases. In January 2015 alone, she collected three major prizes: the three million dollar Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the 300,000 euro Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine and the 650,000 euro Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine.

It’s the perfect academic success story – and a brilliant showcase for the Humboldt Professorship. Exclusively reserved for top researchers from abroad, this generously endowed research award offers optimal financial conditions plus Germany’s excellent research infrastructure, thus rivalling international elite universities from Harvard to Oxford to Shanghai. “We’re competing on equal terms, and what we have to offer is well received by those we’re seeking to attract,” says Georg Scholl of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Strategy Department. It’s not just money that motivates a discip­line’s top researcher to move from Stanford to Halle or from Tokyo to Stuttgart, Scholl believes, such moves also reflect an appreciation of the quality of Germany’s research landscape. US chemist Alec Wodtke, Humboldt Professor at the University of Göttingen and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, wrote in a recent essay that Germany is for him a place where it’s still fun to do research, a country made for free thinkers and basic research.

And recently, Germany has evidently added some more assets to the list. One is internationality. In the past ten years, the proportion of university teachers from abroad has risen by 52%. The trend is the same at non-university research institutions: at the Max Planck Society, for example, around half of PhD students come from abroad. Conversely, many German academics are also attracted by the pro­spect of research stays abroad. “In the past ten years, nearly 45% of German researchers have spent at least three months conducting research abroad,” reports Christina Brüning of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). That puts Germany 14 percentage points above the European average. And another phenomenon is increasingly evident: the brain drain that was lam­ented just a few years ago appears to have been halted, with more and more German researchers returning home. One of them is Oliver Brock, a pioneer in research on artificial intelligence. After spending more than ten years abroad, he returned home and in 2009 took up a teaching post at the TU Berlin, where he once studied – and he is just one of many prominent returnees.

One thing is clear: Germany’s attractiveness to returnees and international researchers has a lot to do with the successful and ambitious political initiatives of recent years. It’s also clear that the funding programmes for international researchers – including those of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Humboldt Foundation – have been instrumental in promoting internationalisation. In 2012 alone, there were 56,500 financially supported international researchers working in Germany. Conversely, 21,300 German researchers embarked on a stay abroad with financial support from funding organisations.  In empirical terms, researchers are actually by far the most mobile workers in Europe – and probably worldwide. There is also a connection between mobility and research productivity: according to an OECD study, internationally mobile researchers also generally publish more in widely cited journals than those who stay at home.

What’s more, internationalisation is much more pronounced in scientific disciplines than in the humanities, especially as German continues to play an important role here as a publication language. “Chemistry, biosciences and physics attract a particularly large number of researchers from abroad,” reports Georg Scholl. More recently, the legal, economic and social sciences have been gaining momentum as well. “The humanities have also shown strong growth,” says Aylâ Neusel of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER) at the University of Kassel. Together with her colleague Andrä Wolter of Berlin‘s Humboldt-Universität, she has produced the study “Internationale Mobilität und Professur” (International Mobility and Professorship), which examines the career paths and career conditions of international professors at German universities.

The friendliness and welcoming culture in Germany is now also being viewed positively. Welcome centres – a rarity just a few years ago – have been set up at nearly all universities. They offer a variety of ser­vices to help newcomers adjust to life in Germany. This changed mentality is probably a crucial factor in the upswing. “Most of the applications come from China and India,” says Georg Scholl. Russia and the United States are also frequently the countries of origin. And leading the field are the European countries: 43% of all financially supported international researchers in Germany come from Europe. The large proportion of European applicants is no surprise to higher education researcher Neusel: “The creation of a European higher education and research area and the mobility support programmes within Europe have now borne fruit.”

Strong internationality benefits all sides because mixed teams, whose members stimulate each other thanks not only to their different scientific backgrounds but also to their cultural differences, are what make internationalisation in research so enriching in the first place. “When it comes to recruiting top international researchers, it’s not just a question of competition and reputation. They contribute to a university in other respects: by introducing new topics, new ways of thinking, intercultural competence. And that, in turn, makes the university more attractive to new immigrants,” explains Aylâ Neusel.

What about the future of international researchers in Germany? When Neusel asked the professors about their plans for the future, what emerged, she says, was a “quite astounding result“ that once again demonstrated Germany’s attractiveness: 69% of international researchers in Germany want to stay here permanently, 18% haven’t yet made up their minds – and only 13% have firm plans to go abroad again.