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Academics welcomed home: programmes entice back those willing to return

By Bärbel Broer

They are young, highly qualified and motivated - but gone: a great many top German academics have been enticed overseas. In the EU-wide competition for the best brains, Germany is only in the middle of the field. Yet Germany is waking up. The so-called brain drain is stalling; high-calibre researchers are returning home.

Wissenschaftler willkommen daheim: Programme locken Rückkehrwillige© una.knipsolina / photocase.deThe GSO aims at regaining German academics not only by offering financial support
An end to the intellectual bloodletting can be attributed to institutions such as the German Scholars Organization (GSO) e.V. Its central aim is to regain German academics working overseas for positions within Germany. "We fully support academics going overseas," tells GSO project manager, Daniel H. Wagner. Better career and research opportunities, a certain professor, or the crowning glory of an already strong academic career are often the reasons. "However our aim is also the return of highly-qualified top personnel trained in Germany at great expense."

52 professors returned home

The GSO proved with its recently concluded programme entitled "Rückkehr deutscher Wissenschaftler aus dem Ausland" ["The return of German academics from abroad"] that this can be achieved. For six years from 2006 onwards, it was funded with 5.8 million euro by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach Foundation - and that to great success: 52 professors returned to German universities as a consequence. Universities already in appointment negotiations with German university tutors working overseas were awarded up to 100,000 euro per researcher. Particulary when negotiating with German academics working abroad the respective universities are faced with the challenge of making attractive, competitive offers. This is often also the snag though. Some universities often cannot satisfy their desire for additional employees or specialist laboratory and technical equipment with their normal budgets. Furthermore, in part significant salary differences exist in comparison with top universities overseas. And sometimes it is down to far more trivial matters: at many German universities, the right to claim travel expenses only provides for the remuneration of costs for travel within Germany. After all, which high-calibre researcher wants to fly to Germany for appointment negotiations and pay the costs out of their own pocket?

Approaching returnees

The GSO programme aims at just this. For meanwhile there are certainly researchers, who wish to return to Germany. The reasons vary: the majority of the 52 funded academics stated in a survey that they received the most attractive offer in Germany. Even though they received a counteroffer to remain at the overseas university, 90 per cent still decided for Germany. "Personal reasons also play a role," explains Daniel Wagner. Some wish to be close to their aging parents, some prefer to bring their children up in Germany, and some have the problem that their German partner cannot obtain a work permit overseas. Germany also needs to work on this though. Hence, many of the 52 returning academics stated that there are too few offers of support for "dual career couples". Should a German academic return to Germany with their American partner, for example, there is no guarantee that the latter will be able to find a job in Germany. "Germany needs to meet those willing to return half way," emphasises Project Manager Daniel Wagner. The GSO programme showed just this: "The number of appointments accepted during the Krupp programme was definitely higher than those without this financial support." In the review publication entitled "Zurück" ["Return"], Chairman of the GSO Executive Board Eicke R. Weber calls for public funds to be made available in addition to the privately funded programmes to reinforce Germany as a place of scholarship.

Federal states active in the battle for the best brains

Their appeal appears to have been heard: the next "Fit for Germany" workshop that the GSO will hold in Vancouver, Canada, on September 11, 2012 for German academics willing to return to Germany will be financed by the three federal states of Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt. The GSO has offered this kind of workshop since 2008. Twice a year, up to 35 participants come together for coaching during this one-day intensive course. "They get to know the job market situation, learn how the application process in science and industry works, and what funding programmes are available," tells Mr Wagner. The workshops held to date have always been fully booked. This proves that the number of those interested in returning to Germany is on the rise.

More networking overseas

The number is also growing, as Germany is making efforts to improve the network between their academics. The best example of this is the German House in the Manhattan district of New York. Liaison offices for German universities, the German House of Science and Innovation, the German Research Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the general consulate are also housed in this building. In the midst of this is the German Academic International Network (GAIN). Established in 2003, the organisation is the network of German academics in North America. "We are the interface between academics, politics and institutions," explains Manager Gerrit Rößler.

Germany as a "top alternative"

Should an academic be considering returning to Germany, then GAIN is among the first addresses to turn to. Gerrit Rößler does not consider the much-discussed intellectual bloodletting to be so dramatic. "It is of course painful when we know of the skills shortage back home, and some top academics choose work in Silicon Valley over employment in Germany," he concedes. "But meanwhile Germany is defenitely a top alternative." The reason for this: thousands of positions were created by the excellence initiative; a whole host of programmes entice returnees with scholarships, travel expense grants, funding programmes. "Germany has recognised the problem that too many top people are leaving and too few are returning," says Gerrit Rößler. What is now still lacking are long-term career options. "Most Germans in the USA ask themselves whether they should apply for a less favourable permanent position in the USA, or for a more attractive but fixed-term position in Germany." And Germany must change its ways on one front: the universities must set up more contact centres for those willing to return to also support them privately. This includes help with the move back across the Atlantic, the organisation of day-care centre places, and support for the job-seeking partner. Gerrit Rößler: "For students, there are already so-called 'Welcome Centres' at most universities. We also need a welcoming culture for high-calibre academics though."

academics :: June 2012