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Alexander von Humboldt Foundation: Interview with Dr. Thomas Scheidtweiler

Dr. Thomas Scheidtweiler
(c) Herman Agenbag

Dr. Thomas Scheidtweiler heads the Africa and Middle East department at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH). Having previously headed an agricultural centre in East Africa for a number of years, he has devoted himself for almost two decades to international scientific cooperation with the main emphasis on Africa.

He also works as a lecturer for the international cooperation organisation "Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)" in programmes relating to regional studies, and as an international election observer.

1. How does the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) involve itself in South Africa and what significance does the German-South African Year of Science 2012/2013 have for it?

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awards research fellowships and research awards to outstanding scientists. In its "Vision for 2030", South Africa's National Planning Commission has formulated the objective that in future, 5,000 doctorates – three times the present figure – should be achieved each year. These intentions are the right ones: science and research make it possible for a society to develop autonomous and suitably-adapted solutions for current and future challenges. In the age of globalisation it will cost us dear if we fail to invest massively in science. The accumulation of knowledge is like a key that is required to utilise the benefits of globalisation and control its negative effects. And as each country contributes only a part of the world's growth in knowledge, scientific collaboration is becoming more and more important.

2. Who are the Foundation's activities aimed at?

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's target group consists of researchers with doctorates. It is good and important that this group should grow quickly. In pursuing this objective, we put the emphasis of cooperation on strengthening scientific excellence and quality. That is the trademark feature of our foundation, whose alumni, the "Humboldtians", include 49 Nobel Prize winners. In this context, the German-South African Year of Science is a great opportunity to intensify the exchange of views and experiences. We are grateful that we, in conjunction with the DAAD and with the support of the BMBF, were able to stage a major alumni conference in Cape Town to kick off this important year. During the Science Year the scientific exchange with South Africa has been intensified in a variety of ways. The building of networks within South Africa, too, has given important momentum to this initiative – as was demonstrated by, inter alia, the Humboldt Kolleg with its project on "World View and Way of Life in the Ancient World" which took place recently in Stellenbosch.

3. What exactly are "Humboldt Kollegs"?

Humboldt Kollegs are regional and specialised conferences organised by Humboldtians. This once again demonstrates the broad impact that support geared towards outstanding research personalities can unleash: over the past three years, members of the Humboldt "family" in 54 countries have organised almost 160 Humboldt Kollegs with financial backing from the Foundation. These events were attended by some 10,000 scientists in all – including more than 500 from Germany.

4.  "Sustainability" plays an important part in the German-South African Year of Science 2012/2013. Is the awarding of research fellowships and research awards also having a sustained effect?

The support and encouragement given to outstanding scientists is an activity we carry out at the relay, the switchpoint, and not on the centrifugal masses. The impact of this work is highly diverse and can often be seen until decades later. There are many ways in which scientists strengthen their societies' capacities for self-help. At first they do it with their research ideas, by drawing up their own and suitably-adapted problem-solving strategies for sustainable development in their respective countries. They also make a structural contribution by setting up educational and research structures. Also of particular importance is the responsibility that they bear for establishing an educated and suitably qualified middle class. The experiences that researchers gather in international scientific cooperation and the possibilities that they offer through their involvement in international networks of excellence radiate out into civil society in many ways.

5.  Can you give an example of that?

Quite a few Humboldtians have become beacons of hope in their respective societies. Professor Neville Alexander, who opened the alumni conference in Cape Town to which I've just referred, died just a few weeks ago. Professor Alexander was an outstanding personality in the research field and a long-standing friend and colleague of Nelson Mandela. He had been associated closely with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation since the 1950s. By that time he had already become involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Representatives of the Humboldt Foundation visited him during his period of imprisonment on Robben Island. From 1978 onwards, five further research visits to Germany by Professor Alexander were supported and financed by the Foundation, the last one being this May on the occasion of the Science Year. He dedicated this last trip to Germany to two book projects which he was subsequently able to complete.

6. In South Africa in particular, the number of your foundation's alumni, the "Humboldtians", is comparatively high not only in the research and teaching field, but also in the areas of economics and society. What is so special about South Africa as a location?

As far as science and research are concerned, South Africa is the most advanced nation in Africa and still has something of a pioneering role in this area. Before the German-South African Year of Science commenced, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation appointed two further Humboldt Ambassador Scientists in South Africa so that this country's enormous potential for collaboration could be exploited even better. One of the central objectives is to focus particularly on female scientists, as well as on research locations which did not gain in significance until the post-apartheid era.

7.  The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is supporting the international collaboration between the two partner countries, not least financially. How do you assess the significance of the international collaboration – specifically with South Africa?

At the moment, four Humboldt Ambassador Scientists from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in South Africa are informing about Germany as a research location and about the Foundation's support programmes. In no other country in the world do we have more people doing this unpaid voluntary work. This shows how important South Africa is in this collaboration. But let's return to the country's pioneering role: when leading scientists from the entire Humboldt network in Africa established the "African-German Network of Excellence in Science" (AGNES) last year, they decided that the founding management committee should be based in South Africa. AGNES is striving, within the framework of the German-South African Year of Science and through funding of the BMBF, to establish a "Neville Alexander remembrance initiative" that will benefit science and research throughout Africa. That should be just what Neville Alexander would have wanted …