Building instructions for the miracles of the future

A Berlin symposium on the current situation of young scientists and the future of the humanities and social sciences.

Author: Ralf Grötker

At the end of November, the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences (MBSF) hosted a public symposium with the theme “(Re)searching the future: young academics in Israel and Germany” in the Liebermann House, directly adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The invited guests were mainly the fellows themselves, i.e. German and Israeli postdoctoral candidates who study at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for up to four years, holding a Martin Buber scholarship.

In their welcome speeches at the start of the event, the presidents of the Humboldt University (HU Berlin), the Free University Berlin (FU), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as well as Georg Schütte, State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) emphasized the great expectations, specifically of the future of the humanities and social sciences, resting upon the young scientists. The president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Menachem Ben-Sasson, put it as follow: “It is all in their hands. We expect them to write the building instructions for our future miracles.”

Saving the humanities

Each of the keynote speakers agreed that this would be no mean feat in times when social sciences and humanities are often forced to fight rear-guard action on many fronts. The past years have seen intensive debates on the value of humanities and social research in the USA. In September 2015, the Japanese universities’ announcement that they would downgrade or completely close their humanities and social sciences departments and replace them with more practical vocational education, caused international commotion. Ruth HaCohen, MBSF director, summarised the state of the discipline as follows: “It is the responsibility of our fellows to fight for the future of the humanities and social sciences”. HU president Olbertz added that the building of networks made possible by the scholarship programmes would help “not to obtain preferential treatment for oneself, but rather to better understand the habitus and culture of other disciplines through mutual exchange. The only way to achieve this is to view one’s work and performance from a distance. This, again, is necessary to convey its worth to outsiders.”

Uniting research and lecturing

The “Open Dialogue Lecture” block addressed the challenges of vast academic freedom, such as that which the postdoc scholarship programmes offer. One aspect discussed was the link between scientific research and lecturing. Prospective university lecturers must gain experience in lecturing. Unlike most university-employed scientists, the MBSF scholarship holders are exempt from lecturing. This can be advantageous. Giovanni Galizia, speaking from his experience as director of the Zukunftskolleg of the University of Konstanz, mentioned: “Many scholarship holders who are not contractually obliged to lecture, volunteer to do so. They choose their own topics. This leads to courses that take us beyond the mandatory curriculum of the university”.

Such initiatives do not always work out. Postdoctoral candidates reported that many universities are obliged to remunerate its lecturers and would thus rather award their own staff with remunerated lecture activities than scholarship holders who are already financially secure. Some participants suggested that regulated cooperation between universities and scholarship programmes could be a solution.

Postdoc generation

The scholarship holders’ biggest concern was, however, not their scientific qualification, but rather the career prospects of the postdoc generation. “If I can make it here, can I make it anywhere?” was the subtitle of a working group of fellows’ presentation of their considerations. Although acknowledged as being of the highest level of scientific excellence, many postdoctoral candidates expressed their dissatisfaction with their life and career prospects. For scientists in their thirties, scholarships present little opportunity to support a family or partnership. “What partner would be prepared to accompany one for four years to Israel without the prospects of a work permit?” one participant asked. Taking school-aged children to Israel is often not practical due to the language barrier. When returning to Germany, the situation does not look much better. Another participant stated that ex-scholarship holders in Germany would, on having children, receive almost no parenting allowance, because their livelihood had been earned as scholarships and not as salaries. There is, above all, a lack of career planning security: Opportunities for a permanent position as a university lecturer are scarce; other permanent mid-level academic positions are decreasing in number. One of the participants emphasized: “All of this influences the essential needs one has at our age.”

Clearly, the scholarship providers are not responsible for the problems and dissatisfaction which the fellows mentioned explicitly during the symposium. The MBSF cannot change university staff structures or government assistance for parents. Nevertheless, postdoctoral candidates are not alone in their criticism. Journals like Nature already focus on the academic labour market’s oversaturation with excellently qualified scientists. In 2014, in its adopted “Recommendations for Career Goals and Paths at Universities”, the German Council of Science and Humanities had already demanded that universities should offer young scientists better prospects of a permanent position in the sciences and should strive for a better ratio between academics eligible for appointment as professors and available professorships. It also appears from the recommendations of the Graduate Academy of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (2011) regarding the “Situation of Postdoctoral Candidates” that the problems expressed at the symposium in the Berlin Liebermann House definitely concern the entire current postdoctoral generation.

It is doubtful whether – as some of the participants proposed – the group of fellows would be better off if, instead of numerous scholarships, there were rather fewer, but regular, insurable positions. The hands of the scholarship providers are not, however, completely bound. From the participant reports one can assume that there is definitely still scope for fellows beyond academic science and research, especially in terms of the development of mentorship programmes and career development support.

Besides all the problems, there is also a huge opportunity, because scholarship programmes like the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences support targeted individuals. Consequently, funding does not trickle away into already established structures. Giovanni Galizia of the Zukunftskollege at the University of Konstanz emphasizes: “The best way to foster creativity is to foster people – and then let them make their own decisions.”