Germany’s German-brain drain

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.

German politics in one sentence

In the context of the ongoing coalition negotiations in Germany, Spiegel quoted Mike Mohring, the leader of the CDU (center-right, the party of Angela Merkel, with a near-majority of the Bundestag seats) in the state of Thüringen speaking in favour of a coalition with the Greens, the environmental party, that started out as an insurgent far-left party in the 70s, but is now a disciplined party of the intellectual left. (Hence the need for the Pirate Party to fill the gap in the political spectrum by focusing on more up-to-date issues (not that the environment is ever not an important issue, but the well-heeled environmentalism of today’s Greens can shade into NIMBYism). Sadly, the Pirates didn’t clear the hurdle to make it into the Bundestag this time.)

Anyway, Mohring summarised the move of the Greens toward their “realistic” (Realos, contrasted to the Fundis, the leftist fundamentalists) wing by saying

Ein Großteil der Wähler der Grünen ist fest im Bürgertum verwurzelt.

A large portion of the Green voters is securely rooted in the middle class.

“Middle class” is only a weak translation for the German Bürgertum, with its undertones of right-thinking and class struggle. And the Greens (or rather, their voters) have not only made it, they are even “rooted”. There’s enough condescension to power a whole revolution right there (except that the Greens and their voters are too middle-class to revolt).

Problems with the subjunctive [for German grammar enthusiasts]

I’ve noticed that web publishing has generally degraded proofreading standards. Still, it’s shocking to see Der Spiegel, a bastion of the German language, making two errors in conjugating the subjunctive in a report on the negotiations over the new governing coalition in Germany:

Was wäre ihre Alternative? Eine Koalition mit den Acht-Prozent-Grünen, bei der die Zahl der Ministerposten für die Union zwar größer, die inhaltlichen Kompromisse aber weitgehender ausfielen würden? Die Union wurde sich in einer solchen Konstellation Unsicherheit mit einkaufen.

I’m genuinely appalled. But no more than I am by the SPD maneuvering itself into this position by continuing to boycott Die Linke. They’re like those proverbial Japanese soldiers still hidden away on an island thinking the war is still going on. Except the SPD is the last one still fighting the Cold War. Or the war for the purity of the socialist cause.

Politics and Plagiarism in Germany

There’s a new plagiarism scandal in the German Bundestag! [link in German]

“A nation reveals the nature of its political culture in its choice of scandals.” That’s not a maxim, but it ought to be. I first thought of it in 1992, when the German economics minister and vice-chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign because of what was called the “Letterhead affair”: He had used departmental stationary to write in support of a relative’s business marketing to wholesalers a plastic chip that shoppers could keep in their wallets and use instead of a 1-mark coin as the deposit on a shopping trolley. “A clever idea!” he enthused. (“Eine pfiffige Idee.”) At the time I thought it reflected well on German politics, that they could hatch a scandal of such unrelieved banality; I compared it with Italy, where at the same time politicians in the pay of organised crime barely rated a mention in the national news unless underaged prostitutes were involved.

In the past couple of years the German government has been repeatedly roiled by plagiarism scandals. What? I hear you cry. How can a politician commit plagiarism? (Barack Obama refusing to admit that his first book was ghostwritten by Mumia Abu Jamal isn’t plagiarism.) Okay, there was Joseph Biden cribbing his stump speech from Neil Kinnock, but plagiarism is one of those crimes that only certain people can commit — like adultery, or violating the secrecy of the confessional — and those people are writers and academics. Politicians aren’t paid for original turns of phrase. Continue reading “Politics and Plagiarism in Germany”


500px-Flag_of_Edward_England.svg Piratenlogo

Outside of Germany, no one seems to have noticed the extraordinary efflorescence of a new party, Die Piraten, the Pirate Party. (Also, no one seems to have noticed that the German word PARTEI — political party — is an anagram of PIRATE.) It’s an international movement, of course, and I suppose it started in Sweden, with links to the Pirate Bay file-sharing site. As with many such political movements — fascism and the Green movement are just two examples — Germany has proved a particularly fertile ground, and the most recent state elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen found the Pirates winning 7.8% of the votes, nearly as many as the liberal FDP. Interestingly, that vote has drawn quite a bit of attention in the foreign press for its undermining the ruling coalition, but no one outside of Germany is talking about the Pirates.

There is a long tradition, going back to Cicero — and continuing through Gilbert and Sullivan — of invoking pirates as an ironic commentary on rapacious rulers, extended to rapacious capitalists by Bertolt Brecht and others. The association of piracy with illegal copying of artistic works goes back to the 17th century in England, as I learned from Adrian Johns’s magisterial book Piracy rights, where I also learned that the earliest designation of copying as piracy did not describe neglect of an author’s right to earn a living from his work (which right was nonexistent), but rather neglect of the king’s right to censor. A pirate was not someone who stole a poor scribbler’s hard-fought text, but rather one who arrogated to himself permission to publish without royal license. More recently, pirate radio expressed the opposition between piracy and censorship.

I find myself enormously encouraged by this movement. Their stated goals are ones I generally support: reform of intellectual property laws, data protection, civil rights and government transparency. But there’s not enough there to really make up a political program. I see it in generational terms. It may not be true that all property is theft, but it certainly seems that those who got into the world before us have gone out of their way to make sure that everything that exists has been carved up and allocated to owners, up to and including the land, the sea, their ideas, their music, and their genetic code.

German election poster
Greens: Every power needs something to drive it
Pirates: Strengthen education. Understand Physics.

Here’s an election campaign poster of the Piraten in NRW. The Greens on top with one of their solemn eco posters: Windmills and the slogan “Every source of power needs a driving force” (approximately), and then “Green makes the difference.” What does it mean? Damned if I know, but it sounds green!
Below it the Piraten put a graphically much cruder retort to this vaguely pious blather:
“Strengthen education. Understand physics.
You’d rather vote for the Pirates.”