Researcher says merit-based US system better at attracting talent | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.05.2009
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Researcher says merit-based US system better at attracting talent

In recent years, skilled Germans have migrated to foreign shores for jobs and opportunities. DW spoke to acclaimed physicist Eicke Weber, who worked in the US for 23 years, about his decision to come back to Germany.

Eicke Weber, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, Germany

Weber says the US does a better job of rewarding success and creativity than Europe

After 23 years of research in the USA, which he put an end to after teaching materials science at the University of California in Berkeley, Professor Eicke Weber finally came home to Germany. On July 1, 2006, the physicist and materials researcher became director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in Freiburg, southern Germany.

What shaped your decision to come back to Germany after working in the US as a researcher for over two decades?

The United States is a unique place worldwide because it is attractive for people from around the world for active and energetic people and of course for scientists who are looking for excellent working conditions. The United States therefore really attracts the best scientists from around the world.

The universities in the US offer many attractive positions. They offer a level playing field to compete for funds for research. The result is that competition is much tougher than, say, in Germany. But those who continuously have good ideas and stay ahead of the others have good opportunities. On the other hand, this "brain drain" isn't good for other countries. That means that Europe and Asia have to make sure they create attractive conditions for people to come back to.

A solar cell roof

The Fraunhofer Insitut in Freiburg focuses on research in solar energy and energy efficiency

The kind of institute I came back to -- Fraunhofer -- is a very special government laboratory because it is a government-sponsored institute, but basically it has to earn its money through its own success. In my institute, basic funding from the government is down to 10 percent -- that means 90 percent is based on our success in bringing in projects, half from industry and half from government sources. This creates a competitive atmosphere, [which] I liked so much while working in the US. I must say I was very happy to have this opportunity to come back to.

American research institutes offer substantially higher salaries than institutes in Germany. Is that one of the main reasons scientists find it difficult to return to countries such as Germany?

It's a whole package of things. I have been quite involved in this topic -- when I was in the US I founded an organization called "German Scholars Organization" to help German scholars find interesting jobs in Germany. And what was frequently mentioned was that the salary is not the problem but rather the structure of the system.

In the US, you can enter the university as I did -- as an untenured assistant professor, and if you are successful, you can obtain tenure. And after 10 years, you can progress to be a full professor. In the German system, you have boxes -- that means your eyes are on the assistant professor level and then you have to go to another university to progress and get a permanent position. This is of course completely unpredictable because you never know what kind of people you are competing with for the new position.

A researcher in a laboratory holding up a tube

Weber says it's easier to plan a career as a researcher in the US

So in the United States, you can plan your career much better. It's much more dependant on your own success and your own contribution to science and technology, whereas in Germany it depends on factors that are difficult to control. That means that when you apply for a position, it's always a gamble, you never know who the other competitors are, you don't the preferences of the people who want to hire you. In all the discussions with foreign scholars in the United States, there's agreement that the US provides very predictable working conditions where everything depends on how good you are.

You set up the "German Scholars Organization" in the United States in 2003. Was the idea to build bridges between Germany and the US?

Yes, exactly. As a scholar in the US, you really feel like you are [out] in the world and you are approached by universities or industry who want to hire you. You don't have a similar type of approach from German employers. Basically you're not in the country anymore and you have to make big efforts to stay in touch and get to know what's going on in Germany.

At that point we thought an organization that concentrates on building this bridge between very interested employers in Germany and those scholars abroad would make a difference. It did. We managed to attract a particularly interesting program from the Krupp Foundation. The foundation gave us several million euros to provide scholarships of $100,000 (74,000 euros) for returning scholars on university positions in Germany. The scholars who got this grant said it made a big difference to them. So there are things that can be done with relatively modest means in order to make a return to Germany more attractive.

Have you continued with the focus of your research as head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy in Freiburg?

Yes, as a matter of fact when I came to Freiburg, the Fraunhofer Institute was so interested in my own research that they provided me with a very big research grant so we could set up a whole laboratory to pursue research to make good solar cells from silicon with high impurity content. Of course, this is what I'm very interested in.

On the other hand, leading an institute with 800 people with a budget of 15 million euros means that I don't have too much time to be involved in research on a day-to-day basis. But for me it's very satisfying that from my director's level I can make sure that the things I'm interested in get the support they deserve.

I can really say that I'm very impressed with the quality of the people and their enthusiasm. Everybody there knows that we are working on something which is important for the future of the world. And therefore though our salaries are not very competitive, compared to the salaries offered in the industry, many stay -- though they could easily double their salaries -- because they like the freedom and the atmosphere we provide.

Interview: Rajiv Sharma (sp)

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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