Our colleagues in EURAXESS Links Brazil interviewed Professor Dr Helmut Schwarz, the president of the Humboldt Foundation, for their March newsletter. The interview should be an interesting read to any prospective Humboldt scholar and can be found here below.
Professor, could you please tell us about the main activities of the Humboldt Foundation?
Beside what one can find on the Alexander von Humboldt foundation (AvH)website, it is important to stress that AvH is different from other organisations in the sense that its fellowships programmes are exclusively dedicated to post-doc researchers. Holding a PhD is a requirement to be eligible for a Humboldt fellowship.
Among the 1.5000 applications received each year, the Humboldt Foundation can award approximately 500 Humboldt Research Fellowships for postdoctoral researchers and experienced researchers annually. We do not have priorities regarding gender, nationality, field. The only criteria is the scientific quality of the application.
And it seems that the AvH foundation has accurate abilities to select early promising talents. Most of our fellows, coming from 140 countries in the world,have had a brilliant career. We are proud to count 51 Nobel laureates among our fellows. The vast majority of them were identified and received an AvH fellowship long before they were awarded the Nobel Prize.
The selection committee is composed of around 50 people from several fields. They have an external look at the applications. They look at each situation individually and can evaluate special situations under all circumstances.
With the Georg Forster Research Fellowship the foundation also has a program for scientists from developing countries, including Brazil, to carry out research on development oriented subjects such as water supply, governance or health.
About 90% of our fellows return to their countries of origin. We offer 12 months return fellowships to those from developing countries. We give scholars and scientists the freedom to carry out the research they are interested in in an ideal environment in Germany.
Could you describe the AvH Foundation's relationship with Brazil among other non-European research partners?
The AvH Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Capes which yields up to 25 Brazilian post-docs by Capes every year. The applications are evaluated based on AvH criteria, ensuring the quality element which characterizes our fellowships.
Brazil has a huge potential of gifted people. I was impressed by the evolution of the number of PhDs obtained in Brazil showed by the President of Capes, Dr Jorge Almeida Guimarães.
It is also one of the countries where scientific research is expected to increase most in the coming years. But there is still room for improvement and I believe that Brazil will now start investing in quality rather than in quantity in the future.
I am optimistic.
What should be done in the future to increase the number of Brazilian scientists among the Humboltians?
As explained, the AvH does not have any priorities with respect to the nationalities of our applicants. However, we are very glad to have tripled the number of applications from Brazil thanks to our cooperation with Capes, which supports 25 fellowships per year.
What skills or qualities does a successful AvH fellow have?
He or she has to be excellent. Now, what makes an excellent researcher? In my eyes, he/she has to be bold, risky and willing to explore new territories.
Can you share any tips with our readers for a successful application to the AvH grants?
All applications are treated equally. We look at individual achievements such as the applicant's publications and curriculum. They need a good research project, which should be able to convince the host institution in Germany. To summarise, I would tell them: try hard. Strive to obtain a PhD well above the average and be courageous to submit your application highlighting what you have achieved so far.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities for increased S, T&I cooperation between Europe and Brazil?
Hard question! My knowledge about Brazil is too limited to give you a comprehensive answer. Brazil is already very good in some fields, such as engineering, biotechnology, also mathematics. But there is still room for improvement, which could be supported by intensified international cooperation.
It seems to me, that more could also be done on the field of public-private cooperation.
The German Fraunhofer institutes, with two thirds of the budget coming from private funding, could be an inspiring model.
You have worked in a number of countries around the world. Could you describe the importance of this international mobility for your career?
I taught in 15 countries. It is fundamental as life enrichment. Being exposed to different cultures with languages you do not understand is fascinating. It gives
you different perspectives on life.
The same seminar given in Shanghai, Kyoto or Tel Aviv will not produce the same results and that is what is interesting.
Mobility teaches what cannot be learnt from a book.
In your opinion, what could be done to further enhance international scientific cooperation and, most importantly, the mobility of international researchers?
I do not want to give advice to any country, but following my visit to Brasilia and conversations I had with deans, professors, students, I understand that Brazil should try even harder to recruit researchers from abroad, either foreigners or Brazilians.
This was also the case in China some years ago and the strategy worked. When they came back to China, researchers who were trained abroad were highly appreciated, which means that their international experience is appraised and valuated verbally, but also for the promotion of their career.
I would say that it is now time to put less effort on number and be more appealing to different mindsets.
Brazil's flagship mobility programme Science without Borders mainly consists of outgoing grants. As a scientist, would you rather support incoming or outgoing mobility?
We believe in two-way traffic. We encourage Humbdoltians to go back to their home countries. For instance, after their initial stay in Germany, researchers from developing and threshold countries, including from Brazil, can benefit from
a return fellowship to sponsor reintegration. The AvH foundation will stay in contact with them for all of their scientific life, offering sponsorship for further research stays in Germany. They become our best ambassadors and remain
Humboltians for ever.
Thank you for your time, professor!