Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Der Spiegel has just published an interview with Nobel-Prize winner Thomas Südhof, in which the editors express their dismay that the Göttingen-born and -educated Südhof has spent his entire professional career in the US, except for an apparently disastrous 2 years as director of a Max Planck Institute. He sounds apologetic, praising Göttingen and his supervisor, praising the research environment in Germany. He left only because

I think every scientist should spend some time abroad; a country should make this possible — but naturally should also try to get them back.

Hmm. “Try to get them back”? He also makes clear that he doesn’t even know if he has retained his German citizenship. The interview continues:

Spiegel: Many researchers leave for the US or England because they don’t like the conditions for scientists in Germany. What do you think?

Südhof: The research landscape in Germany is terrific. Many of my collaborators, very good people, have returned to Germany — happily. Germany has a lot to offer.

Spiegel: Why don’t you return?

Südhof: Professionally I’m probably too old. I’d like to keep doing research as long as I am able. In the US that’s possible. Otherwise I’d really love to return to Germany, if only so that my young children would learn the language.

He’s still seven or eight years away from normal retirement, and lots of exceptions are made, so this sounds like a polite excuse.

But I’m interested in this presumption that German scientists should want to return to Germany, and that Germany should be trying to lure them back. Germany isn’t Canada. It’s not as though German science is overrun with foreigners. The statistics I read a few years back were that about 94% of professors in German universities are German, and two thirds of the rest are from neighbouring German-speaking countries. My own experience has been that German universities are much less open to applications from foreign academics than British or Belgian or Dutch or French or Canadian ones. I don’t think the number of Germans at British universities is so much higher than the number of Britons at German universities because of “better research conditions”, and I think language is only a marginal issue.

Why is it that there is a constant outcry over the need to bring back a few more sufficiently teutonic academics from abroad? I suggest that they should be thinking about how German universities can make themselves more attractive to good researchers — not just a few star scientists who can run a Max Planck Institute — regardless of their nationality? I don’t have the impression that the UK goes into mourning when a British-born scientist working abroad wins a prize. And maybe, if German universities were less insular — and less prone to academic nepotism — more of the cosmopolitan sort of German scientists would be eager to build their careers there.

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