Battle for German Brains

By Scott Jaschik
Via Inside Higher Ed

SAN FRANCISCO — German was once the global language of science, a role long since captured by English. But this weekend at the University of California at San Francisco, German was the language of an unusual gathering of academic leaders and rising scientific talent.

About 300 postdocs at top North American universities — the Ivies, MIT, Chicago, Stanford, Madison, most University of California campuses, as well as Canadian institutions such as the Universities of British Columbia and Toronto — were gathered here by the German government’s top research organizations. The postdocs are German and are among the most promising of the 5,000-plus German scholars with doctorates currently working in the United States.

Among those traveling here to woo them back home, and to get ideas on how to make German universities better, were 10 university presidents, members of the German parliament, senior government and foundation officials, and representatives of 40-plus academic institutions. Their message was that German higher education is in the midst of a reformation, and that now is the time for young talent to push for more change.

Currently, about 85 percent of German postdocs who work in the United States come home, although only about 50 percent of those who earn their Ph.D.s in the United States do so. Educators organize this gathering every year — known as GAIN (for German Academic International Network) — to push those numbers higher, and to prevent any erosion of talent. High-level German interest in this effort is so strong that the weekend saw presidents and vice presidents working booths in the exhibit area, pitching their quite-renowned universities to postdocs. And the university leaders said that their commitment to the effort is such that they were open to quite frank (and sometimes quite critical) discussions of how the country’s universities need to change.

“Germany has no gold, no oil, no gas, so we need brains,” said Isolde von Bülow, director of the Graduate Center of Ludwig-Maximilians Universität.

Discussions of brain drain in the United States tend to focus on the academic talent from developing nations – scholars who come to the United States and many times feel they can’t find universities of the caliber they would like in their home countries. This gathering shows a different kind of focus on brain drain (or gain). Some of Germany’s universities of course predate the entire United States, and there is a sophisticated research infrastructure in the country. Officials involved in this program say this effort shows how even educationally and technologically advanced nations need to pay attention to the global flow of talent. And in Germany’s case, the discussions here reflect a great willingness to learn from the best of American higher education — not only through the connections the postdocs from Germany pick up in the U.S., but from their ideas about how to challenge the university hierarchy. Read story at Inside Higher Education

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