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Ambassador for Germany’s science landscape

The name Alexander von Humboldt is synonymous with the best ambassador for Germany as a country of science. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation launched the ideas competition “Research alumni of universities in Germany” in April 2011 and the winners have now been selected. The University of Heidelberg is one of the three winners and was awarded a prize for its best practice model for working with the university’s research alumni.

“Research alumni are the best ambassadors for German research. They have direct access to the people that we would like to reach – namely the best young talents around the world,” said Enno Aufderheide, Secretary General of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in April 2011 on the occasion of the launch of the foundation’s ideas competition “Research alumni of universities in Germany”. Aufderheide also pointed out that the von Humboldt Foundation’s alumni competition represents a move towards encouraging German universities to work with their own research alumni on an active and sustainable basis, something that “virtually no organization had had on their agenda before”.

The University of Heidelberg’s best practice model

Chinese alumni in front of the “Alte Universität” building in Heidelberg © Universität Heidelberg

The University of Heidelberg's winning concept involves active and sustainable cooperation with its international research alumni, i.e. international scientists who have at some stage studied or completed a research stay at the University of Heidelberg. The University of Heidelberg was awarded funding of 130,000 euros for a period of 18 months for its best practice model. The objective of the model is to establish closer links between the alumni and the university, thus integrating alumni into the university's internationalization strategy. The activities associated with this objective are to start in October 2011. The University of Heidelberg will offer advice and services to its alumni during their stay in Heidelberg and after they have relocated to new institutions in Germany and abroad, as well as networking meetings and invitations to return to Heidelberg. The funds will also be used to recruit more students and young scientists from abroad, especially from countries such as India, Italy and the USA where the university already has a lot of contact with research alumni. Networking meetings will be organised in these countries. Other plans include establishing re-invitation fellowships and providing information on funding opportunities for research alumni who have relocated to other countries after their stay in Heidelberg.

"Working with alumni is a key element in the university's internationalization strategy. With a large number of foreign scientists coming to Heidelberg for research or studies and 15 years of experience in operating an international alumni network, we are in an excellent position to turn the concept into reality," said the head of Heidelberg Alumni International (HAI), Silke Rodenberg. The university's concept involves cooperation between HAI, which is the university's central alumni initiative, and the Welcome Centre, the Academic International Office, the university's centres and offices and alumni clubs around the world. Silke Rodenberg is convinced that the university's alumni activities will reinforce research alumni's bonds with the university and increase the university's international visibility as an outstanding research institution.

Main building of the University of Chile in Santiago, which is one of the University of Heidelberg’s 19 partner universities. © Council of Latin American Studies

In addition to the University of Heidelberg, RWTH Aachen University and the University of Bayreuth were also awarded funding for their "Research alumni of universities in Germany" concepts. The competition is part of the "International Research Marketing" cooperative project run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Research Foundation and the Fraunhofer Society as part of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research's "Research in Germany" initiative, which aims to promote Germany's research landscape and increase its profile in the global science market.

Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian

Title page of an American book published in 2003 in memory of von Humboldt’s arrival in Mexico 200 years ago. © EJ

The most sustainable alumni contacts are the result of the research scholarships and research prizes awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The author of this article experienced this himself when he was collecting information about China's universities in the mid-1990s, at a time when Chinese universities were hardly known. It was the network of Chinese Humboldtians that opened many doors for him. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's motto is: "Once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian" - it is an awareness of being something special, a member of a worldwide family with whom one remains associated throughout one's life.

Every year, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation makes it possible for more than 2,000 researchers from around the world to come to Germany to work on a research project in cooperation with their German colleagues. The criteria for Alexander von Humboldt scholarships and prizes are the applicants' academic record; there are no quotas per country or per academic discipline. The foundation supports people, not projects. Humboldtians are free to choose their host institutions and research projects themselves; they have an extremely good reputation around the world. There are more than 25,000 Humboldt Foundation alumni in over 130 countries worldwide, including 44 Nobel Prize winners.

The best-known German outside German borders

Alexander von Humboldt is the best possible name that could have been chosen for a German scientific foundation that is focused on international understanding. “The majority of Germans are unaware that von Humboldt is the best-known German in the world; he is even better known than Goethe,” said Hans Magnus Enzensberger who is known for reworking some of von Humboldt’s major publications. In Latin America, schoolchildren still know who von Humboldt is 150 years after his death. More than one thousand geographic entities are named after him: rivers, mountains, cities, streets, mountains, sea currents, and a deep-water bay. When he was very young, Alexander von Humboldt was known as the “second discoverer of South America” and it is said that Napoleon was jealous of him. Alexander von Humboldt had a huge impact on the natural sciences in the first half of the 19th century, and nobody since has ever had the same influence. Humboldt was a great humanist, he was not interested in money or power; he was a vehement opponent of slavery, a convinced republican who was held in high esteem by 19th century rulers and was thus well placed to act as an advocate for peace and the freedom of science. He supported young scientific talents, including Justus Liebig and Werner von Siemens.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation was established in 1860 shortly after Humboldt’s death. Until losing its endowment capital in 1923, the foundation was mainly involved in providing support for German scientists going on research trips to other countries. The foundation was re-established in 1925 with the main purpose of supporting foreign students, later also academics and doctoral candidates during their stay in Germany. This foundation ceased to exist in 1945 and today’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation was established by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1952 and follows the spirit of Humboldt with its creed of international understanding, freedom and the excellence of the sciences.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/ambassador-for-germany-s-science-landscape