Prof. Dr. Johanna Wanka: Tackling major challenges takes us all a step further

Research is a key part of Germany as an innovative location. Since Alexander von Humboldt investigated the nature of things, we have been driven by a greater curiosity, which also promoted technology and hence the Industrial Revolution. There is a little bit of Humboldt’s curiosity and spirit of discovery in all of us – an urge which, in Germany, is encouraged as early as kindergarten. So, instead of a foreword, we would like to reprint here the speech made by Germany’s Minister of Research on the occasion of the award of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Professorships on 8 May 2014.


When Alexander von Humboldt started out with his trav­­elling companions to climb Chimborazo in Ecuador in 1802, the 6,268-metre-high volcano was considered the highest in the world. The description of the ascent remained unequalled for centuries, is world famous and today is important testimony to Humboldt’s zeal as a researcher.

Alexander von Humboldt pursued his objective with courage and curiosity. He wanted to discover the un­known and shrank from no challenge in doing so. “How little has lain at the end of our path of what we have experienced and how infinitely much of that has resulted from it,” he once wrote. He was utterly convinced that travel helped benefit the gaining of knowledge in the long term. His conclusion remains true to this day: becoming acquainted with the world, sometimes climbing high mountains or, simply in the figurative sense, tackling major challenges takes us all further.

The Alexander von Humboldt Professors whom we are honouring today are pursuing this call by Alexander von Humboldt in the best possible tradition. They, too, are seeking out new locations and challenges to make progress in science and research. (…)


The research and development (R&D) climate in Ger­many is very positive. It is should – and, if we have any­thing to do with it, will – stay that way. I will name just one indicator: the 3 per cent target. This states that three per cent of gross domestic product will be spent on R&D. In Germany we reached this target for the first time in 2012. We achieved two thirds of this figure thanks to private investment but high public investment has also made a contribution. There are only a few countries in the world which spend more in terms of per cent: Japan and Korea, for example. We are followed by the USA, Great Britain and France. We naturally want to keep this situation as it is and even improve on it in future if we can. Accordingly, the government’s coalition agreement stipulates that we intend to keep the three per cent goal. This makes clear how many billions of euros we need for R&D.

When I say that the R&D climate in Germany is positive, then it is not only the amounts of money available in this context that are important. Reliability is also important. In the Pact for Research and Innovation, we have given non-university research centres certainty in respect of their financial foundations. The investments are worth it – the status that we have achieved today is due to the fact that we give science, research and innova­tion priority. Over the past few years, we have shown – and not only in political rhetoric, but also by means of funding and the basic conditions that have been created – how important education and research are to us. Besides the Pact for Research and Innovation, the opportunities of the Excellence Initiative and the expansion of the promotion of mobility are also part of these basic conditions with which we are supporting science and research. (…)

This year’s award of the Humboldt Professorships is an exceptional occasion for me for two reasons:

Firstly, for the first time in many years we have been able to welcome women among the prize winners. On the same occasion last year, I referred to the issue of the low number of women as Humboldt Professors. In awarding these Professorships, it is not our intention to achieve any quota – with excellent top-level researchers this is not possible. But the pleasure at being able to award Humboldt Professorships to two women as well as four men is all the greater.


Increasing further the number of female Hum­boldt Professors, it will also be up to the university man­­age­­ments who nominate the candidates. They should be on the lookout for outstanding female researchers who might qualify for these Professorships. They should also consider – and we are considering this together – how positive conditions can be created that extend be­­yond funding and the situation at universities or research centres. The aim is to make the entire envir­onment family-friendly and to include criteria for the work-life balance. And this issue concerns not only wom­en but men as well.

Secondly, this prize-giving ceremony is a special occasion because the first Humboldt Professors who received this award in 2009 have now exceeded the five-year funding stage. The six male Professors and the one female Professor are all still currently working in Ger­­many. And we are pleased about that because we would like to hold on to them over the long term.

So we hope that you, too, will agree with the opinions of your predecessors, who for the most part, were very satisfied with the conditions they found here. In awarding these Professorships, we would like to open up the greatest possible room for your research activities. And, of course, we naturally invite you to enrich our scientific landscape with your experience because we want to further expand exchanges between scientists of different countries and promote cooperation with them.

A look at the mobility of junior scientists shows that we are well on the way to achieving this. We are seeing an enormous increase in the number of international stu­­dents. In Germany, one third of German tertiary graduates has studied abroad. This development is bol­­stered by German overseas student living allowances (BAföG), offers by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and by all the other programmes we have. In the 2013 winter se­­mester, we gained a record: foreign students ranked Germany as being the third-most pop­­ular country to study in. And we are the favourite non-English-speaking country for foreign students. That means that there has been a lot going on here over the last few years.

For a long time, Germany was chided – possibly justly – for not being particu­larly hospitable to foreign stu­­dents. And it was our fault that, many years ago, our reputation was less than ideal. Devel­op­ments since then have shown that this has changed – we are now better than our rep­­utation in this respect. And for all those who now come to Germany, it is wonderful to expe­rience the new atmosphere and take mem­ories of this time back home or to another country. But things have also changed for those who have studied abroad.

Another aspect is the consistent international net­­working with which we are now pushing ahead. In April 2013, we approved a “Strategy for Internationalisation of Higher Education” at the Joint Science Conference – a strategy which is very ambitious but feasible.

These days, scientists’ careers are often international. Science is characterised by being open to new impressions – indeed by being open to anything new at all – and dealing with these experiences. Jean Paul, a novelist and contemporary of Alexander von Humboldt, once said, “Only travel is life, as – conversely – life is travel.” We need dialogue and hope that the scientists who come to Germany will enrich this exchange with their broad horizon of experience. So we are very happy that you have come to Germany. And now let us celebrate that together.

wanka_foto_laurence_chaperon-KopieJohanna Wanka has been Federal Minister of Education and Research and a member of the government of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2013. Previously, she was Minister of Science of the state of Brandenburg from 2000 to 2009 and then Minister with the same portfolio in Lower Saxony from 2010 to 2013. She had received her doctorate in 1980 after studying mathematics at the University of Leipzig from 1970 to 1974.