An Offer You Can’t Refuse (Almost)

Thanks to the Humboldt Professorship, Germany has enticing things to offer international research luminaries. A review of the first five years.

Text: Georg Scholl (published: Kosmos Dec/2013)

“Germany’s Nobel Prizes awarded,” announced the Süddeutsche Zeitung on its front page when the Alexander von Humboldt Professorships were granted for the first time some five years ago. Germany’s Nobel Prizes? The comparison is both apposite and completely off the mark. On the one hand, just like Nobel Laureates, the award winners have indeed reached the summit – at up to five million EUR, there is no German research award more valuable than the Alexander von Humboldt Professorship. Even in international terms, it’s a humdinger. On the other hand, the Humboldt Professorship does not recognise a researcher’s life’s work, or an innovative theory possibly going back decades, as is the case with the Nobel Prize. Humboldt Professors are expected to have many productive years ahead of them – indeed, some are still under 40.

Another similarity to Stockholm is the selection process: you cannot apply, you have to be nominated. And the nominations must be made by German universities, which are keen to recruit a specific researcher from abroad, and therefore have to submit a convincing plan for integrating the award winner into their development strategy: How will the candidate drive the university’s internationalisation and help to steer it into the top league in a certain field? What structures, such as laboratories, large-scale equipment or working groups, are envisaged? How can the nominee become a catalyst, and what funding is available to recruit additional specialists for the team? What are the long-term prospects for maintaining the position when the award funding comes to an end? This strategic plan is just as important as the excellence of the candidate.

Money isn’t everything
So, even though it honours eminent researchers, the Humboldt Professorship is not a research award in the traditional sense. If the Nobel Prize is a Rolls Royce, the Humboldt Professorship is a Tesla. It is a modern tool in the global contest for the best ideas and the best minds, and it furnishes German universities with the funding they need to place a successful bid on the international researcher transfer market. They should be able to provide such attractive general conditions that even researchers who are being wooed in their own countries with offers to stay in the end choose Aachen over New York, Hamburg over Harvard, or Bonn over Cambridge. But it doesn’t always work. Roughly one in four sets of appointment negotiations fails, and the prospective Humboldt Professor decides not to come to Germany after all. Money is by no means always the issue.

What factors determine the success or failure of global headhunting, and to what extent the award fulfils expectations were questions the Humboldt Foundation examined in its first interim evaluation. The first award winners of 2009 are just completing their five-year appointment as Humboldt Professors. In preparation for a major evaluation scheduled to take place in 2015, bibliometric analyses were conducted, and the current award winners and universities were asked about their experiences. Here are the most important findings:

For most of the professors surveyed, the German appointment package was so attractive that their previous institutions were unable to make a competitive offer to stay there. Furthermore, the award has already gained such international kudos that a Humboldt Professorship has become “an offer you can’t refuse”, one professor commented. However, there are those who are even prepared to take a cut in salary, especially if they come from the USA, the previous residence of most award winners. After all, the salary levels are still comparatively high there, although this has changed somewhat in the wake of the financial crisis, and even the major elite universities have had to make some concessions. Where Germany scores, is on job security. Professors here are usually public servants and have security of tenure. There is also less pressure to do applied research, so Germany is seen as a paradise for fundamental researchers. Many Humboldt Professors commend the amount of space they enjoy for creative research without having to justify every step (cf. also: Stardom vs. Bescheidenheit).

The bureaucracy battle
Cultural factors are also important. More than half of the award winners selected up to 2013 are German natives or have been connected with Germany for a very long time, because of previous stays or German marital partners, or because they already speak German. Many have reached a stage in their lives when packing up house and home and moving to another country is a decision not to be taken lightly: Will the family agree? What are the job prospects for accompanying partners? What about the children’s education? In some cases, negotiations broke down because marital partners imposed their veto. Frequent mention was made of Germany’s poor image with regard to family-friendliness and women’s career prospects. This could also be one of the reasons why the percentage of women Humboldt Professors is so low (cf. also: There’s still room at the top).

If there is one thing Humboldt Professors complain about, it’s German bureaucracy. Internal processes at universities are often experienced as inefficient and strenuous. Some award winners complain about a lack of transparency in the use of funds and protracted discussions with the administration. There are arguments, for example, about the use of the 15 percent lump sum for administration that is included in the award amount and is actually supposed to guarantee a maximum of flexibility. It can be used to build reserves for future salary payments or for dual-career offers. The Humboldt Foundation now recommends that universities earmark part of these funds for employing a science manager to take on the administrative tasks as well as human resource and budgetary planning on the award winner’s behalf.

Excellence and internationalisation – the goals are being met
The bibliometric analyses reveal that Humboldt Professors are outstanding international researchers with very good networks. They cooperate extensively with partners abroad, not just on joint publications but also when applying for third-party funding, reviewing doctoral theses and organising conferences. Their working groups are also very international; usually, more than half of the members come from other countries.

Most award winners are well-connected locally and play an active role at their new universities by taking on leadership positions or training young talents. All those who participated in the survey had supervised doctoral or habilitation candidates since assuming the professorship. Most feel integrated in Germany, both professionally and privately, and are satisfied with the implementation of their universities’ strategic plans.