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Nobel Prize Winners in Lindau

Smart Questions Nurture the Spirit of Lindau

What are the criteria that ensure the ‘spirit of Lindau?’ Nadine Gärber and Rainer Blatt tell us how they select the ‘right’ scientists from more than 1,000 applicants.

References, CVs, publication lists, extra-university activities, motivation letters – there are many requirements for young researchers who want to take part in the Nobel laureate meeting. Once they have been chosen as candidates by their own universities, their applications end up on the desks of Nadine Gärber and Rainer Blatt. This year the two selected 650 out of a pool of more than 1,100 nominees.

Deutsche Welle: The motto of the conference is “Educate. Inspire. Connect.” How do you decide who fits that?


Rainer Blatt: They have to be people who show interest. Not someone who gets a week of paid vacation to come here and sit back in the discussions like in a movie theater. That’s not what we want. We’re looking for people who participate, who ask questions, who will go out and spread their knowledge and enthusiasm about science.


What criteria do you use to pick the candidates? How do you recognize the ‘right’ ones?


Blatt: There are some who we can eliminate immediately and some who we know we definitely want. This year we had very many good applications and hardly rejected any right away. But between the two is a large middle ground where we have to do a lot of deliberating.


What is an example of a candidate who you would take?


Let’s say the person is 25 and working on a doctorate: I’d say that is quite early – this person seems quite committed. Then I see he or she already has two publications, one as first author in a reputable journal. Then we look at the letters of recommendation: the candidate is among the best in their year, has taken part in activities outside the university and won some prizes. All of that makes a positive impression.


And which application would appeal to you less?


For example, an application from a 29 year old man who has just started his doctoral work, without having done a lengthy military service. He has no publications yet. That makes me scratch my head and wonder why. There is a long letter of recommendation that sounds quite good, but when you read between the lines you see that he’s a good student, but nothing special. There I’d tend to say no.


What role does nationality play?


We want young scientists from as many countries as possible to come here. This year it’s 78 countries – a record number. But that means you have to choose: there’s an outstanding nominee from the US, but they’re the 60th one. Or the 50th from Germany. On the other hand, we don’t yet have anyone from Zambia or Kenya, and no one from Chile. So it can happen that I’d choose candidates from Third World countries even if they don’t have any publications yet.


Do the Nobel laureates also have to apply?


No, they can always come. And they can give talks about whatever they like. It’s a diverse mixture. Of course, it’s usually about their scientific interests, but it can also be about their hobbies. Last year, for example, we had Peter Grünberg with his music. Science should come alive through the people who do it – and if they can’t convey their enthusiasm, they can’t convey the science.


How can you tell that this inspiration is really reaching the young scientists?


Nadine Gärber: Especially on the last day, you can see how happy the young people are about the many contacts they’ve made here. For a week they’ve been living here like in a soap bubble; they’ve put their heads together, formed working groups, made friends, networked – and after that it’s hard to say goodbye.

Afterwards they start up groups on Facebook – there are a lot of them every year, and they are very active. When I put a photo on Facebook a week before the next meeting some of the alumni write, “Oh, it was so great – I’d love to be there again – I’ll never forget it.” Their enthusiasm lasts a long time – and that is wonderful.


How have things changed over the years?


The scientific level has risen enormously; the Nobel laureates also tell us that. The selection process has grown tougher each year. So you can’t really make a comparison with the past.

But what has remained the same is the atmosphere. When the participants arrive here they get a surprise, because at first glance Lindau doesn’t look like a city that hosts international conferences. That is good for us because it helps to foster this informal atmosphere. And the Nobel prizewinners are always in the midst of things. They don’t have their own table, but sit with the young researchers. They are always available for chats about personal as well as scientific things.


Rainer Blatt: In my day we were less daring about posing questions to the Nobel laureates. In fact, back when I was a participant I was once put in my place rather sharply by one of the honorable Nobel prizewinners. That would never happen today - never. And that is the Spirit of Lindau.