How to lure (German) researchers back to Germany

The german academic international network (GAIN)[1] informs German researchers working in North America about research opportunities in Germany. The implied intention is to lure German researchers back to Germany. GAIN project director Katja Simons explains:

Many german researchers abroad are highly interested in returning but they need support creating networks and receiving information on career opportunities in Germany. Germany has invested a great deal in their education and is in need of these bright minds and their experience they gained abroad.

GAIN is a joint initiative by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). Their 8th annual meeting took place two weeks ago in Boston2. More than 200 researchers working in North America participated, together with representatives from many German research organizations, including Matthias Kleiner, president of the German Research Foundation (DFG)3 and Margeret Wintermantel, president of the German Recotors' Conference (HRK, the association of all higher education institutions in Germany)4. Representatives from business and politics (members of the parliament) were also present.

To get a more personal perspective, I talked to two researchers that attented the meeting. Alexander Maier, a research fellow at the NIH, thinks that the GAIN meeting was a success. Sceptical at the beginning of the conference, he acknowledges that things have changed and that doing reseach in Germany has become much more attractive. The excellence initiative by the German Government is one big reason for that change5. The most rewarding part of the program for him was the workshop on how to apply for professorhips.

Florian Jaeger, an assistant professor from the University of Rochester (his blog is here6) is on the GAIN advisory board. He also got the impression that the German reseach system is changing, and that

Many institutions in Germany seem to be inspired to learn from the positive aspects of the American system (and maybe even to improve on it).

But both Alexander and Florian felt that the research environment in Germany is still far from perfect, and the German research organisations should not think that all problems have been solved. Startup grants are often relatively low and junior research groups are usually not as independent as in the United States. And Florian thinks that the research atmosphere – the way people interact and approach problems – is still more stimulating in the United States.

Most reports about the GAIN meeting are in the German media, including the newspapers Hamburger Abendblatt7 and Süddeutsche Zeitung8. I found one blog post from a German postdoc attending the meeting9. Nature Network is a good place to have a discussion not only about the research environment in different countries, but also to learn more about similar strategies carried out by other countries, e.g. France, Italy, Japan or China. Feel free to leave your comments about why you left your home country to do research somewhere else10, or why you returned after finishing your PhD or postdoc11.

fn1. GAIN Homepage

fn2. DFG news report of the meeting

fn3. DFG Homepage

fn4. HRK Homepage

fn5. Excellence initiative

fn6. HLP/Jaeger lab blog

fn7. Lockrufe der deutschen Forschung

fn8. In Boston werben Politiker für deutsche Unis

fn9. Sonja in the City

fn10. A Developing Passion

fn11. Science in the Bel Paese

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29 Responses to How to lure (German) researchers back to Germany

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    Martin, why are you linking to footnotes which are webpages? That ‘s an extra step for the reader. Eleven times.

  2. Mark Tummers says:

    I would go back home if there was money. No wait, if there was lots of money.
    I don’t like my homecountry any more.

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    Because I think that most people first read the blog post and then look at the links.

  4. Mark Tummers says:

    My main reason not to return to my homecountry after my PhD is mainly because I don’t know anyone there. I did my PhD abroad.
    I did apply for a few positions in the Netherlands (the horrible truth of my origin is now exposed) but I never even got invited for an interview. Although I fullfilled all the criteria perfectly for some. Yet they managed to find many other better qualified people.
    I could of course apply for my own money, but then there is no need to go back unless the grant is specific for that particular Nation.

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    _Because I think that most people first read the blog post and then look at the links_
    I think Richard’s still right – people can choose to read through the hyperlinks embedded in the text.

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    Don’t think so Martin. Tabbed browsing is my friend.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    I went to the US to postdoc for 2 years because, in contrast to travel in the “reverse direction”:, this is often perceived as a _good_ career move (though the location and publication yield are both important factors). I had a “Wellcome Trust”: Fellowship that was specifically designed to lure people back since it paid for 2 years abroad and then 1 year back in the UK.
    I’m afraid I don’t think they do it any more but it worked well for me. I had a fantastic time in Boston at the “Hogle lab”: in Harvard Med School and was part of a productive project. There’s no doubt in my mind that the experience helped to buff up my CV for my return – though getting a permanent job is also a matter of being in the right place at the right time…

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    @Richard – _Tabbed browsing is my friend_
    But I hope it’s not becoming a “_problem_…”:

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    I did a postdoc in Boston for 4 years. I was considering to stay in the US, but personal reasons tipped the balance to return to Germany (and sometimes I regret this step, Boston was great). At that time there was no GAIN and I wasn’t really well-prepared for the return. One example would be that in contrast to the US, it is still uncommon in Germany to get help finding a position for husband and wife if both are doing research.

  10. Martin Fenner says:

    Mark, did you move from the Netherlands to Finland to Florida and back to Finland? At least geographically and interesting combination.

  11. Mark Tummers says:

    Yes, Masters in Utrecht (Netherlands), PhD in Finland, short postdoc (9 months in Gainesville, FL) in the States, but we didn’t like it there. I liked the scientific climate, but living in the USA with a family wasn’t a good experience.
    I then asked my old boss about a position in Denmark. And she asked why I wouldn’t come back to Helsinki. She could support me for 6 months. I ended up staying longer. I managed to get a 3 year personal grant.
    For my career it would be better to apply for a job in Switserland, but my wife doesn’t want to leave Finland currently. So I am staying put.
    What can you do?

  12. Eva Amsen says:

    _”I don’t like my homecountry any more.”_
    It’s sad and telling that I pegged Mark as Dutch from this sentence alone, before even reading the rest.
    Same here.
    And there is a whole documentary (maybe even more) about people who don’t like Holland anymore (I forgot the title). And a book (called “Ik mis alleen de HEMA.”) Apparently there was a whole exodus in the past ten years. Biggest wave of people leaving the country since the years right after the second World War.

  13. Mark Tummers says:

    I didn’t know yet I didn’t like my country when I left. I left for other reasons.
    I just realized at one point that I ended up in a country that’s much nicer than Holland.
    That wasn’t the USA btw.

  14. Martin Fenner says:

    Eva, I wasn’t aware of this. Are you talking about an exodus of Dutch scientists, or Dutch people in general?
    Although we still have many German researchers leaving Germany, I think that more people are willing to return now than 10 years ago.

  15. Eva Amsen says:

    Mark, I also didn’t leave because I didn’t like it, but because all my friends left to do _their_ PhD somewhere else, and I ended up realizing I didn’t really want to go back.
    Martin, Dutch people in general are leaving.
    I’m sure I can find some articles on it on Google….
    “This article in the NYT blames immigrants”:
    “Documentary about people moving from Holland to Canada”: (this is about immigrants no longer feeling welcome, so the exact opposite reason from the NYT piece)
    “A piece with statistics”:
    “And another one”:
    And a science-specific one:
    “Half of researchers want to go abroad”:

  16. Heather Etchevers says:

    In fact, maybe it’s a good way to ensure people _do_ read through before hitting the links. It was thus quite late that I saw myself referenced in there.
    Okay, what got me to France were purely non-scientific reasons. My French husband had a French government job lined up ten years before I got a permanent position. So I followed him (happily, I might add. I was naive enough to think I could do anything I wanted by the mere force of my ideas. Then I encountered a little bit of that grad school peg-lowering Anna mentioned in some comment thread I can’t remember so can’t find.)
    At the risk of sounding defeatist, the way to lure German researchers back to Germany is by making offers that can not be made elsewhere. If France would just up the salaries a wee bit, and perhaps propose a few more positions or alternative long-term contracts, I am sure they could get many more of their bright young stars to come home – because France offers tenured research positions that do not hinge on teaching, something that is not found in the countries where many French postdocs decide to undertake a longer-term career.
    Everyone wants to be compensated for their work. Germany (and France) needs to decide what the work of their researchers is worth to their self-esteem or their economy, and offer more than words and “prestige” as compensation. Otherwise the workforce will remain elsewhere, where the pay at least might be better and the jobs more abundant.

  17. Martin Fenner says:

    Stephen mentioned the Wellcome Trust fellowship. Are there any other programs that try to motivate researchers to move make to their home countries similar to the GAIN initiative? Nature had for example “this”: article on China that mentions the China and United States Biochemistry Examination and Application (CUSBEA) Program.

  18. Henry Gee says:

    14 years ago (!) I did a feature for Nature on science in Mexico, where I discovered that the Mexican science agency CONACYT was working very hard to tempt Mexican scientists back home from the USA and mostly not succeeding. The particular problem was that Mexicp didn’t have a critical mass pf sciemtists of _any_nationality to meet its needs . So they came up with a cunning plan that worked a lot better. They targeted talented but threadbare Russians ( this was 1994, remember). Whenever I visited a lab they made a point of wheeling out their token Russian.

  19. Mark Tummers says:

    The No.1 reason why foreign male researchers go to Finland is the ‘finnish girlfriend’.
    Otherwise Finland is pretty much of the chart. Which is a shame because for such a small nation Finland pumps quite a lot of money and effort into science.
    The Finnish girlfriend syndrome does produce an influx of researchers that is highly variable in quality. If I were the nation of Finland I would try also promising a science future.

  20. Martin Fenner says:

    For those interested, Henry wrote “this”: in 1994.
    Few people go to work in a different country simply as a career choice. There are usually personal reasons involved. I met my wife when we were both doing a postdoc in Boston. She is also German, otherwise I might well have stayed in the United States (or moved to yet another country).
    Vancouver is probably currently on top of my list of places I would love to live and work. But Berlin has great potential to also become a great place to live for scientists.

  21. Heather Etchevers says:

    Some science personalities are concerned about the brain drain, but “not so much as all that”: (Link in French; I could not find better. The Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale offers financing for returning French researchers from a foreign postdoctoral stint, while preparing for job interviews.)
    The “Kastler Foundation”: helps foreign researchers come to France and make it attractive; another goal seems to be to maintain ties after sending them home.
    Don’t you think in present-day Europe it would be wiser for us to try to seduce the best scientists, no matter where they are from? I just read a “report”: saying that French universities recruit about 6% foreigners to assistant and full professorships in the sciences; of these, half are European, a quarter are (mostly North) African, and one twentieth are North American. That’s roughly one like me only every couple of years in the universities, and s/he might be from Quebec, after all. It’s quite different in the other direction.
    Overall, they estimate about 7% foreign researchers across all disciplines in France, including employed by research organizations such as my own.
    So why aren’t we trying to get the best German and Italian (and Australian etc etc) postdocs to come settle in France? (I know a couple of women researchers who did just that – because the tradeoff salary-wise was in exchange much better social support for working women with children.) The benefits don’t just need to be the money, but they do need to offset the perceived difficulties of being an expatriate. And for returning nationals, those benefits need to outweigh the corresponding benefits that foreign countries offer scientists, if you want to lure them back. Bringing your kids up in your native language might not suffice.

  22. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think all the Germans are in Australia, looking around the labs here…
    Heather’s point is a good one. We (whoever ‘we’ are) should try to attract the best.
    Personal note: New Zealand is trying to attract back NZ scientists. Thing is of course that NZ actually isn’t very good (infrastructure, etc.-wise) at doing science. They produce people like Rutherford, sure: but he did his work in the UK. There’s a reason for that, guys.

  23. Eva Amsen says:

    I thought New Zealand was okay as long as you liked doing research in something related to agriculture.

  24. Richard P. Grant says:


  25. Martin Fenner says:

    I would think that a healthy competition for good scientists would increase the number of jobs and funding available to researchers. And I believe that in many ways Europe still has to catch up with the United States. Science had a “recent article”: on the European perspective of attracting scientists from other countries. And the European Community has the “Marie Curie Actions Program”: for various activities.
    Whereas GAIN is targeted at German researchers, there are a number of programs for researchers from other countries to do research in Germany:
    * “Mercator”: program Visiting Professorships at German Universities
    * “Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin”: offers visiting fellowships for one year
    * “Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation”: offers a variety of programs
    * “Helmholtz Programs for young scientists”: are targeted at Chinese and Russian scientists (they have other programs as well)
    * “Lichtenberg Professorhips by the Volkswagen-Stiftung”: for German and International researchers
    * “DAAD Scholarship database”: includes many different scholarships

  26. Jamieson Christie says:

    _Stephen mentioned the Wellcome Trust fellowship. Are there any other programs that try to motivate researchers to move make to their home countries similar to the GAIN initiative?_
    The Foundation for Polish Science has established a “WELCOME programme”:, which is intended either for Polish researchers who have been working abroad, or for foreign researchers wanting to settle in Poland. It’s intended for people who want to start a research group (at least 6 people), and seems very generously funded.

  27. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. Otherwise Finland is pretty much of the chart. Which is a shame because for such a small nation Finland pumps quite a lot of money and effort into science.
    And does produce good students too.
    Unfortunately for a large percentage of permanent jobs in Finnish academia you know who’s going to get it before it is even announced.

  28. Martin Fenner says:

    _Unfortunately for a large percentage of permanent jobs in Finnish academia you know who’s going to get it before it is even announced._
    That is very true not only for Finland. Can be very frustrating, especially if you don’t know that when you apply for a position.

  29. Marylka Yoe Uusisaari says:

    _Otherwise Finland is pretty much of the chart. Which is a shame because for such a small nation Finland pumps quite a lot of money and effort into science._
    _Unfortunately for a large percentage of permanent jobs in Finnish academia you know who’s going to get it before it is even announced._
    Sad but true. I left Finland after having enjoyed first-class education up till the PhD entirely free of charge. There were no post-doctoral positions at that time, and going abroad was the norm.
    I still like my home country, miss the family and friends, but under current conditions that just is not enough of a reason to even seriously consider looking for a position.
    (I wish they won’t revoke my citizenship for this talk 😉