From Knowledge to Development

Ten Years' Growth - What Fruit Has the Georg Forster Programme Borne?

By Felix Streiter

Since 1997, the Humboldt Foundation has been sponsoring scientists and scholars from developing countries by granting them tailormade Georg Forster Research Fellowships. Six personal success stories.

At first, he is somewhat surprised, but then he is rather proud: without knowing it, Oscar Aguirre, forestry scientist from Mexico, was the very first Georg Forster Research Fellow. The tenth anniversary of the programme is the reason for the unexpected call from Bonn, extending an invitation which brings back the time he spent researching in Germany. Aguirre is to be a guest at a major conference being planned by the Humboldt Foundation to celebrate this special birthday. So far, Forster Fellowships have been granted to roughly 400 researchers from developing countries. Aguirre embarked on his research stay at Göttingen University in March 1998, and the stay continues to have an effect to this day. "Being a Georg Forster Fellow gave me the opportunity to meet academics from Germany and many other countries. This didn't just lead to joint research projects and publications, but lasting friendships with colleagues from other parts of the world."

The Foundation introduced the Georg Forster Fellowship in 1997 to counter the low and declining number of applications from developing and threshold countries. A cause study within the Humboldt Network had shown that scientists and scholars from these countries faced special difficulties which could not always be taken into account in the context of the Humboldt Research Fellowships, which are announced worldwide. The Foundation reacted by setting up the Georg Forster Programme, with funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, to meet the particular needs of these researchers and pursue at the same time a development policy goal: research proposals must encompass the transfer of knowledge and methods to the fellow's own country. In this way, teaching and research in developing countries are strengthened longterm.

Georg Forster Research Fellowships 1997-2007
Georg Forster Research Fellowships 1997-2007

This aspect is particularly important to Bernadetta Kwintiana Ane, engineer from Indonesia. She is one of the most recent Georg Forster Research Fellows and has been researching at the Institute of Computer-aided Product Development Systems at Stuttgart University since August 2007. She wants to use computer-aided processes to improve the geometric calculation of new product designs and significantly accelerate the process from design to manufacturing of final products. "I'm intrigued by the thought of turning ideas into reality. It's a valuable experience to facilitate the transfer of know-how to developing countries and contribute to social progress," the engineer comments.

Strengthening the academic situation at home is one of the effects of the new Return Fellowships which provide support for Georg Forster Fellows when their stay in Germany has come to an end. Facilitating their reintegration at home helps to prevent the braindrain from developing countries. After all, the exchange of academics in the Humboldt Network is not supposed to be a oneway street to Germany, but cooperation in a community of highly qualified and mobile academics who have made successful careers for themselves in their respective countries. Biologist Hamadi Boga from Kenya is a good example. From 2005 to 2006, he was a Georg Forster Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. He isolated and characterised microorganisms in the intestines of termites to examine their ability to break down harmful substances with the object of tapping the microorganisms as a new source of antibiotics and enzymes. According to Hamadi Boga, the particular advantage of being an Humboldtian is the range of offers available to alumni. "What is special about the Humboldt Foundation is that their sponsorship doesn't simply stop when your stay in Germany comes to an end - the real added value comes later. My return home was made much easier for me because I had a Return Fellowship for a year. It meant I could continue the research I had started in Germany and build up a working group at my own institute. Then there were other grants for buying scientific equipment and specialist literature so that I could improve the facilities in our molecular biology lab." In Hamadi Boga's case, the Georg Forster Fellowship was a decisive step in his career. He is now Dean of the Faculty of Science at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi

Chemist Leena Suntornsuk from Thailand was particularly impressed by how positive her environment was in Germany. From 2006 to 2007, she worked as a Georg Forster Research Fellow at the Institute of Instrumental Analysis and Bioanalysis at Saarland University. The feeling of belonging to the worldwide Humboldt Family made her feel safe and confident from the very beginning. "My stay in Germany was a great experience and did a lot for me scientifically and personally. Because of being an Humboldtian and a Georg Forster Fellow, I never felt far from home, despite my new surroundings, the new language and lots of other new things," she says looking back.

The most important consideration for many research fellows and alumni is that precious commodity, time. Time for research, time to think, time out from administrative and teaching tasks, time to complete a major research project in peace. Tesfaye Tafesse from Ethiopia belongs to the first generation of Georg Forster Fellows. Since his first research stay from 1999 to 2001, he has already made three further visits to his German host institute, the Department of Cultural and Geosciences at Osnabrück University, in the context of alumni sponsorship. "For me, the Georg Forster Fellowship was a unique opportunity to write a book, which has since been widely read and reviewed, on the Egyptian-Ethiopian conflict over the use of the Nile waters," Tafesse comments. The other visits to Germany also brought forth a book and several scientific articles.

Griselda Capaldo, law scholar at Buenos Aires University, can only agree. The international environmental law expert was a guest academic at Cologne University from 2001 to 2002 and again in 2006. The essential advantage of further research stays abroad was that one finally had time to devote oneself 100 percent to a research project or publication. "Germany gave me time, and I am very grateful for that," the lawyer emphasises. She has now become a Humboldt Foundation's Ambassador Scholar in Argentina, informing junior researchers about the Foundation and about Germany as a research location, as well as advising the Foundation on academic policy issues. 

The Georg Forster Programme continues to develop by offering further training in science management, for instance. "The quality of leadership at universities is becoming ever more important. This is not only true for Germany but especially for developing and threshold countries, too. If you want to provide excellent quality teaching and research you have to master all the instruments of management." This is the way Peter Mayer, Professor at Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, describes the idea behind a new programme to train academic leaders from developing countries. The "International Deans' Course" is one of the Humboldt Foundation's further education measures which is run in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service, the German Rectors' Conference, the Centre for Higher Education Development and Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences. In summer 2007, a pilot course was held for both potential and experienced deans from nine African countries. Eight of the 30-odd participants were Georg Forster Research Fellows. In the coming years, the course is to be offered to academics from south east Asia and Latin America, too. For the Humboldt Foundation this course was just the first step. In the next few years, Georg Forster Fellows will be offered a multifaceted further education programme ranging from proposal writing via finance and project management to departmental management. In this way, Georg Forster Fellows will be even better prepared for leadership tasks in their own countries.

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Felix Streiter Felix Streiter

Dr. des. Felix Streiter heads a section in the Humboldt Foundation's Sponsorship and Network Department and is responsible for the Georg Forster Programme.

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