Far more than academic exchange

Closely connected: The Free University of Berlin, the RWTH Aachen University and the Juelich Research Centre maintain strategic partnerships with Israel.

Author: Ralf Grötker

“More than a hundred scientists from all disciplines and on all levels cooperate with each other. To me, this is what strategic partnership is about”. Susanne Zepp, professor of Romance Philology and academic coordinator of the strategic partnerships between the Free University of Berlin (FU) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is clearly enthusiastic about the extent to which the alliance between the two universities has penetrated both institutions. “The partnership does not only function on the university management level, but is an active cooperation on all of the university sections. Administrative staff and science managers also participate in the exchange with Jerusalem!”

Instruments of university diplomacy

Strategic partnerships are important instruments for university internationalisation. Almost every large university supports a network of a few selected international partners. The institutionalisation of research networks has developed significantly, first and foremost as a result of the German Excellence Initiative. Since the mid-1980s, the Hebrew University has cultivated close relationships with the Free University of Berlin. From 2011 onwards, these relationships were transformed into official strategic partnerships, which the Free University Berlin also established with the universities of Peking, British Columbia and St. Petersburg.

Juelich – Aachen – Haifa

In addition to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Technion in Haifa is also connected to partners in Germany by means of long-term framework agreements: The “Umbrella Cooperation” between the Technion, the Jülich Research Centre and the RWTH Aachen has been in existence since 1983. From the outset, the focus on a large, annual joint symposium was an essential component of this cooperation. The support of joint research projects was added in 2007, and in 2011 the first German-Israeli research forum was held jointly with an Umbrella Symposium. “This cooperation stretches far beyond mere academic exchange”, explains Prof Frank Schneider, representative of the RWTH Aachen Rectorate for the cooperation with the Technion. “To me, the sincere alliance between researchers and scientists of both countries is a sign that a normal relationship between Germany and Israel is possible despite the burdensome history which affected the academic field long after the war. This is very encouraging!”

The Technion is particularly interesting for research centres such as Jülich and Aachen, which have been connected through the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance since 2007 and both also collaborate closely with industry partners. “The Technion in Haifa specifically impressed me with its absolute commitment to technology, based on the insight that a country’s problems can only be addressed and solved by means of innovative technological development. At the same time, the Technion also emphasises the ethical responsibilities of scientists at a time when technology penetrates every aspect of our daily lives”, explains Prof Sebastian Schmidt, board member of the Jülich Research Centre.

The Jülich Research Centre with its approximately 4700 employees cooperating on interdisciplinary projects, and the affiliated international Helmholtz Research School on Biophysics and Soft Matter are worthy partners of the Technion, as is the RWTH Aachen University, which, together with Jülich, forms the German Research School for Simulation Sciences. In addition, more than a thousand technology-orientated firms have been established in the region during the past 25 years, and more than half of them are direct spin-offs of the RWTH Aachen.

The Umbrella Symposiums are annual events at one of the three locations: Aachen, Jülich or Haifa. The first symposium held in Aachen in 1984 still had a very wide range of subjects such as fluid engineering and combustion, biotechnological treatment of organic waste, as well as medical and biomedical engineering. At the following symposiums, the subjects were defined more narrowly, but always with reference to problems with particular societal and economic interests. The most recent event in Haifa from 8 to 11 February 2015 had the theme: “When Life Sciences and Engineering Converge”. In 2016, the 30th umbrella symposium will be held in Jülich. The title: “From quantum matter to new materials”.

In addition to the symposiums, the partners of the umbrella cooperation initiated their own project funding. Besides the Technion, at least one other partner from Germany participates in the projects. The funding is primarily a start-up financing: During the project duration, the participating scientists have the opportunity to either do preliminary work for a later larger project, or to develop a joint application for a larger research project. The ongoing project “Water Quality Event Detection for Urban Water Security and Urban Water Management Based on Hydrotoxicological Investigations” (Runtime: 09/2013 – 08/2016), funded by the German BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and the Israeli MOST (Ministry of Science, Technology and Space), is a recent example of a larger research project launched by start-up financing from the Umbrella funding. This year’s call for proposals had the same theme as the Umbrella Conference, i.e. “When Life Science and Engineering Converge”. This call for proposals urged biochemists, molecular biologists, material researchers and pharmacists to enter their proposals. The funding amounts to US$ 15,000 for each project partner.

Human rights under pressure

While the umbrella partnership focuses mainly on themes in the natural sciences and technical areas, the strategic partnership of the Free University of Berlin (FU) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has a strong research focus on humanities and social sciences. In October 2014, the German-Israeli doctoral programme “Human Rights under Pressure”, the most important project in this field of cooperation, was introduced. Scholars from law studies, social sciences and the humanities from all over the world gathered at a facility funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG). “Under pressure’ can refer to violations of human rights as well as to the further development of human rights as an ethical and judicial construct under societal pressure,” comments Prof Klaus Hoffmann-Holland on the title of the programme. Hoffmann-Holland and his Israeli colleague, Prof Tomer Broude, are chairing the doctoral programme.

The research topics of the visiting scientists and doctoral candidates at the study and research group are not restricted to German-Israeli issues: There are also projects that deal with problems in South Africa, as well as with issues from the field of reproductive medicine, such as surrogate motherhood. There is, however, a noticeable German-Israeli aspect, for example, in projects dealing with the challenges and opportunities of migration. Critical perspectives are not excluded: Limor Yeude of the Hebrew University is, for example, concerned with conflict resolution between nations and ethnic groups. She also cooperates with human rights organisations in respect of her scientific work.

Double doctorate Berlin/Jerusalem

Another novelty introduced at the Free University of Berlin in the context of the strategic partnerships is a joint PhD-agreement with the Hebrew University. From 2015, doctoral candidates of the Free University and the Hebrew University can graduate simultaneously at both universities. This is challenging for the federal German research system. Markus Edler of the Dahlem Research School (which acts as an umbrella institution for the doctoral programme and young doctoral candidates at the FU Berlin) explains: “All universities in Germany are allowed to regulate their doctoral procedures autonomously within certain parameters”. He developed the details of the agreement. In practice, the University provides a framework which the departments or faculties complete in different ways. The problem with an agreement like the one with the Hebrew University is that although the contracts have to be signed at university level, the procedural jurisdiction vests in the departments or faculties. Therefore, the university must consider the valid requirements and regulations of the doctoral procedures in each case. Edler continued: “With the combined doctoral program, we build on an initiative which started in France in the mid-1990s, what we call the co-tutelle. In the co-tutelle procedure, individual requirements need to be painstakingly stipulated for each doctoral graduation. We want to avoid this in the joint PhD programme with the Hebrew University”. The many differences between the Israeli and German doctoral procedures are another hurdle. In Israel, for example, there is no disputation where a group of professors assess a doctoral candidate’s performance. In Germany, no doctoral degree is awarded without an oral examination. The solution is for Israeli and German doctoral candidates’ disputations to take place in Berlin, with the program bearing the travelling expenses for examiners and doctoral candidates.

Beyond the doctoral agreement and programme, there are also many other initiatives within the strategic partnership framework at the Free University Berlin. Coordinator Susanne Zepp explains: ”Teaching projects, conferences and workshops, research projects and combined third-party funding – our strategic partnership comprises the whole spectrum of academic activities. For example, we have a project in history didactics led by Prof Martin Luecke here in Berlin, which deals with historical cultures in Israel and Germany and develops shared teaching and learning resources. Combined research projects are conducted in life sciences as well as in mathematics and physics. There is a lecture series on German literature in Jerusalem, which the FU Berlin and the Hebrew University organise. The Hebrew University and the FU Berlin have also launched their own German-Israeli postdoc programme, the first programme of its kind. And we have an online Masters course, ‘Intellectual encounters of the Islamicate World’, where students from the Palestinian Territories and from Israel as well as students from all over the world can study together. Beyond this, there is also cooperation in the areas of start-up support and technology transfers.”

Why Israel?

The question remains: Why did the FU Berlin specifically choose the Hebrew University in Israel as its number one strategic partner? The answer is simple. “Our scientists already have a long working relationship with Israel, especially the Hebrew University. All institutions maintain some connections. Only such circumstances make the combined supervision of, for example, doctoral candidates possible,” observes Martin Kuder, deputy head of the Center for International Cooperation at the FU Berlin. The Center for International Cooperation was established within the German Excellence Initiative context and assists with the organising and processing of applications as well as the financing of the combined projects. According to Kuder: “Beyond this, the Israeli research institutes and the Hebrew University are among the best scientific institutions worldwide. Therefore, our researchers have a huge interest in this cooperation. This is not something one can only pretend to be.”