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Interview Dr Heidi Wedel

Interview Dr Heidi Wedel

Dr Heidi Wedel is the Managing Director of the Global Young Academy (GYA) and the head of the GYA office at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. She has a PhD in political science  and long years of experience in international science management from her previous position at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). For the GYA, she has co-organized the “International Conference of the Global Young Academy on Sustainability” as part of the German-South African Year of Science.

1. Dr Wedel, in what ways is the Global Young Academy (GYA) involved in the German-South African Year of Science?

"The Global Young Academy (GYA) held its annual conference in 2012 in South Africa in cooperation with the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). The theme was ‘Sustainability: Lessons on the Road between Rio and Rio+20’. Funding made it possible for GYA to invite more young German scientists to South Africa, including both GYA members and people associated with other German academies. These young German scientists established a variety of contacts with their South African colleagues at the meeting. At the conference, the intermediary institutions AvH and DAAD as well as the German Embassy and the South African Department of Science and Technology presented opportunities for funding academic exchange and cooperation between the two countries. The subsequent outreach programme organized by GYA gave the scientists from Germany an opportunity to visit South African specialized institutes and schools.

In addition, the GYA and the two young academies, Die Junge Akademie and SAYAS, as well as both national academies, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), are preparing a symposium for young scientists on the topic of sustainability. GYA members from both countries and a number of other experts from elsewhere will be participating. The outcome of the symposium will be presented to a wider audience in Germany and issued in a joint publication. We have planned time for an exchange of experience between the attending young academies."

2. What do you expect from the South African Year of Science (DSAWJ) 2012/2013?

“The Year of Science is a wonderful instrument for showcasing Germany to South Africa as a research location so that we can forge new partnerships with excellent new partners and, even more importantly in my view, raise awareness in Germany of the strengths and potential of science and research in South Africa to attract and win over German scientists to collaborate with South African colleagues and institutes. German-South African cooperation can act as a bridge for cooperation with the region of southern Africa and drive its development forward.”

3. What do you hope to achieve with your BMBF-funded project "Sustainability – Lessons on the road between Rio and Rio+20" in the German-South African Year of Science?

"The idea behind the GYA 2012 hosting its annual conference in South Africa in cooperation with the newly established South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) was to support the latter, which was only recently founded in 2011. The foundation of SAYAS, was strongly supported by GYA, in particular by the South African GYA Co-Chair Prof. Bernard Slippers. By co-hosting the conference, SAYAS was given an excellent opportunity for top-class international exchange, networking and exposure to many VIPs at a very early stage. The conference also raised greater awareness of the role and potential of SAYAS within the South African Department of Science and Technology.

BMBF funding allowed seven young German scientists from GYA, the Junge Akademie and the Saxonian Academy of Sciences and Humanities to travel to South Africa to discuss experiences at the conference with young South African GYA and/or SAYAS member colleagues and with renowned scientists of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). They heard inspiring lectures on science and development in South Africa held by high-profile guest speakers such as the South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, and about world-class palaeontology research from Prof. Lee Berger. All of this, underscored by the visits scheduled after the conference, was aimed at promoting new scientific cooperation between young scientists from Germany and South Africa.

The discussions on the conference theme ‘Sustainability – Lessons on the road between Rio and Rio+20’, did more than just foster scientific exchange between the participants – they also issued a declaration calling upon the scientific community to take up three concrete measures. Firstly, scientists must engage in dialogue with decision-makers and civil society; secondly, the scientific community must overcome obstacles that discourage such a dialogue with the public (such as in the assessment of scientific success); thirdly, scientists must foster scientific literacy about sustainable development among the public. was submitted to the Rio+20 Group and published."

4. You recently held an international conference with young German and South African scientists in Johannesburg. What are your focus areas of cooperation with South Africa?

"As a global academy of young scientists, GYA primarily cooperates with national young academies. The conference in Johannesburg was organized jointly with SAYAS. All of SAYAS’ members were invited to attend, and this resulted in many opportunities for making contact, exchange and cooperation. At institutional level these contacts to SAYAS will be pursued at the symposium we are planning together with the Junge Akademie, which will be followed by consultations on the development of young academies. There was also a first meeting of representatives of young academies from all over the world, which will be followed up by a workshop in Amsterdam titled “Shaping the Future of Young Academies“. Regional meetings are proposed as follow-up action, with South Africa assuming a pioneering role as the first young academy in southern Africa. Once SAYAS has established itself, German-South African cooperation could help to foster the development of national young academies in the region.

GYA, which is geared towards scientific policy, sees the exchange of expertise as a desirable side effect and the natural outcome of its members’ areas of interest, their strong motivation to engage in interdisciplinary cooperation and their goal of promoting societal development. Some of the topics discussed in South Africa by German and South African conference participants were child nutrition, drinking water quality and health.

One special focus area of GYA cooperation with South Africa is dialogue between the scientific community and schools. The aim here is to overcome inhibitions through regular exchanges between pupils and scientists and to awaken pupils’ interest in research with exciting presentations about science – the natural sciences in particular – and to encourage pupils to study and pursue careers in science. The German conference participants visited schools and the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, where they introduced pupils from mainly under-privileged areas to scientific methods. One group tested the science game ‘Expedition Moondus’ at a school on the outskirts of the largest township Alexandra. It is a game that was developed by the Dutch Young Academy and translated into English at the GYA meeting for use in other countries. The enthusiasm shown by the children is proof that this game designed to familiarize children with the sciences is also compatible with non-Western traditions. If the necessary funding is made available, GYA would like to translate the game into all of the official languages spoken in South Africa and distribute it to schools in the country. A GYA member from Germany has also volunteered to translate the game into German."

5. What are the important aspects of encouraging international networking among scientists?

“I think that the important aspects of international networking include institutional frameworks and platforms for cooperation, the goals of cooperation and, of course, the target groups.
Today, electronic media and forums are important networking instruments that enable and facilitate the virtual exchange of ideas and information. However, face-to-face encounters still remain an indispensable element because they establish the necessary trust and interest in one another and make more in-depth contact possible. Different forms of virtual networking play an important role in preparing, processing and following up on cooperation as well as for on-going cooperation in the phases between face-to-face meetings.

I think it is key that the scientific elite of the future are more involved in international scientific networking and to help young scientists at the beginning of their careers, with their extremely creative potential, in the field of networking. The Global Young Academy, which considers itself the voice of young scientists around the world, provides an institutional framework to achieve this.

Research networking can only be invigorated and activated if the participants, for whom time is one of the scarcest resources, see it as meaningful – for themselves, for their scientific research or for the idealistic objectives that they are pursuing. International cooperation makes a considerable scientific contribution if it encourages discussion of different perspectives of a research subject and causes the synthesis of completely new questions, perspectives, interpretations, findings, etc. International networking can also serve the purpose of raising the profile of one’s own group and giving its position more weight in scientific life. From the point of view of GYA members, international networks should also help eliminate differences between the developed and less developed world and create better opportunities for research and influence for excellent scientists in developing countries. Finally, in our view, networking should radiate into societies, convey scientific findings to a larger public, attract young people to science, advise politicians and contribute to social development.”


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