Bringing the Brains Back Home

April 2005 Deutsche Welle

The GAIN network, an initiative started to help lure German researchers home, is celebrating its first anniversary. A number of similar programs have sprung up, but are they working?

Thousands of German scientists and academics are currently working abroad, many of them in the United States. The lopsided flow of Germany's "best and brightest" to academic institutions overseas has sent off alarm signals and prompted several new initiatives to lure them back.

The New York-based German Academic International Network (GAIN) is one such project. A joint effort of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German Research Council (DFG) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH), the network is celebrating its one year anniversary this week. Another similar project, the German Scholars Organization (GSO), headquartered in San Francisco, also recently passed the one year mark.

In a handy division of labor, GAIN has focused on distributing information and creating a forum for German scientists working abroad, while the GSO has taken a more practical approach and started an online job bank to match candidates with openings. Both have been complemented by new individual initiatives -- fellowships, grants -- offered by Germany's top research and funding organizations.

But a year into the start of the all-out offensive to counter brain drain with brain gain, the jury's still out on whether such efforts are proving effective. Meanwhile, a recently published study conducted by the German Research Council (DFG) has questioned the extent of the crisis.

Extent of crisis hard to pinpoint

The DFG study, published in May of this year, found that 85 percent of scientists who leave Germany eventually return home. However the study only looked at a very specific group, those who received post-doctoral fellowships from the DFG. Still, the figures contradicted previous, largely anecdotal estimates that have painted a more dire picture.

According to the alarmists, the brain drain phenomenon is not unique to Germany but a Europe-wide problem. For example, in November of 2003, the European Commission reported that 75 percent of EU citizens who obtained a doctorate in the United States had no plans to return to Europe. In Germany, a study conducted by the German Science Foundation came out somewhere in the middle, finding that 43 percent of German scientists abroad had no intention of returning home, while 44 percent for undecided or willing.

Indeed, the extend of the crisis has remained hard to dispute. But if the DFG study is correct, and those 15 percent who remain abroad are the best in their field, that could still represent a significant loss for Germany, Beate Scholz a DFG spokeswoman, told DW-WORLD.

"The numbers might not be that large, but we could have a problem in terms of quality," she said.

Scholz pointed to yet another study commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Science and Research that found those who remained abroad were among the most highly qualified in their field.

Rigid system with uncertain prospects

Steffen Berg, a physicist at Princeton University who researches surface active agents, is one of the German researchers currently living in the US who would like to return. But he also understands the frustrations of those who aren't so eager to follow his lead.

"Germany is pretty good at educating people to a certain level, but then it gets difficult because there are limited options," he told DW-WORLD.

Berg has heard numerous complaints from his colleagues. Some focus on the antiquated so-called "habilitation" system in Germany, which requires post-doctoral researchers to work with tenured professors for several years and complete another thesis before they can become professors themselves. Others cite young researchers' lack of independence.

Old boy's network a problem

Some, according to Berg, are also put off by the insider "old boys network" of the German scientific community, where jobs do not always go to the most highly qualified candidates, but those with the best connections.

"In Germany, sometimes your chance of getting a good professor position has less to do with the quality of your work and more to do with your contacts," Berg said.

Despite such misgivings, Berg would still like to return home, and he credits projects such as the GAIN initiative and new fellowship opportunities with luring him back.

New programs change attitudes

In recent years, German research institutions have taken steps to make the prospect of pursuing a career in Germany more appealing to young researchers, and for many that has meant ushering in a host of new programs to provide those scientists with the much-wished-for independence.

The Emmy Noether program, administrated by the German Research Foundation, is one such initiative, and the Young Investigators Award, offered by the Helmholtz Association, is another. Both give young researchers enough funding to establish their own labs and pursue independent work for up to four and five years respectively.

Berg, who is applying for the Noether fellowship program, said the prospect of working independently has certainly been an incentive. But he and other young scientists abroad may not have known about the new opportunities if it wasn't for the efforts of GAIN, he said, and in that case he gives credit where credit is due.

Everybody just wants to be loved

But at the end of the day, it's just nice to feel needed, Berg said, adding that GAIN has certainly helped to better inform him and other young scientists about new opportunities. But it has also made him feel sought after.

"It's nice to feel like my return is appreciated," he said.

At a recent event held at MIT in Boston, the directors of some of Germany's most prestigious research institutions were on hand to underline that point, Katja Simons the project manager for GAIN, told DW-WORLD.

"They were sending a very important signal to these young scientists: You are important to us," she said.

Kristine Ziwica

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