Scholars who can no longer work in their home countries because they are under threat or persecuted have had the opportunity to continue their work at German higher education institutions and research institutes since 2015 – with a fellowship from the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which was launched by the Federal Foreign Office and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The program is now entering its tenth round. So far, six fellows were able to come to the University of Potsdam. The employees of the Welcome Center helped them settle in Potsdam and overcome all the hurdles that a fresh start in a foreign country can bring about. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with Claudia Rößling, Manager of the Welcome Center, about the importance of the initiative, the special challenges it presents for the Welcome Center, and how the program has evolved over the years.
Why do you think the Philipp Schwartz Initiative (PSI) is important?
We are unfortunately seeing that academic freedom is subject to increasing restrictions in many countries. The latest data analysis of the Academic Freedom Index shows that 80 percent of the world's population live in countries where academic freedom is restricted. Severe deteriorations on this front were observed last year in Belarus, Hong Kong, Zambia, and Sri Lanka.
Programs like the Philipp Schwartz Initiative in Germany, PAUSE in France, or those of the International Education Scholar Rescue Fund (worldwide) are therefore of tremendous importance as a means to offer researchers a perspective to continue their research in a safe environment. In addition to the Humboldt Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Einstein Foundation, the Academy in Exile, and regional initiatives have created an increasing number of support services in Germany for researchers at risk.
In recent years, the University of Potsdam welcomed several researchers through PSI. How did this come to be?
So far, at the UP, this has mainly happened thanks to existing contacts in research collaborations, and even PSI fellows who were already here. However, we can also search for suitable candidates directly via the SAR network and establish initial contact with the scholars at risk using this platform. PSI fellows are then selected by means of a two-stage application process: Mentors first submit a nomination for their candidates to the UP, then a selection committee determines which applications will be forwarded to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH). The final decision on the selection is, in turn, made by a panel of experts at the AvH. The procedure is now firmly established, with selection meetings and nominations taking place twice a year at the UP. We have nominated ten candidates so far, six of whom have already received a fellowship. Out of these six fellows, four are or were at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences and two at the Faculty of Arts. This is mainly due to the dedication of the individual mentors. The program is generally open to all disciplines.
What kind of support do PSI fellows receive?
Of course, fellows are first and foremost put in the care of the respective chairs in the departments. This is where professional supervision is provided, where they are included in working groups, colloquia, and the organization of conferences and events. In our role as a Welcome Center, we mainly provide organizational support and assistance with issues relating to residency law, in particular. These are much more difficult than for other international researchers and we often cooperate with lawyers. Apart from that, the search for accommodation, support for the family accompanying the fellow, administrative matters, and advice on further support services also fall within our domain. Of course, all other advisory services at the UP are available to PSI fellows – from language courses offered by Zessko, qualification courses offered by PoGS, to advice on research funding and applications from Division 1.
Many fellows are facing threats or even persecution and have to take special precautions. Does this affect the work of the IO when it comes to your support services?
We are very careful in terms of communication, never use full names, send documents with password protection, and always ask for the fellows' consent when including third parties in our counseling/communication. Fellows who have experienced imprisonment and flight often need more intensive, very empathetic counseling.
How can PSI fellows benefit from their stay in Potsdam or their fellowships in the long term?
They benefit, above all, from the very good research infrastructure and the integration into working groups and ongoing projects at the UP. Fellows learn to understand the German research system and can establish new contacts and networks. Even if it takes some time to find their way in Germany, the fellowship is an important step in their career development. While some candidates were only able to publish nationally in their home countries, they now have the opportunity to publish internationally through internationally established research groups and to participate in conferences worldwide. This lays the foundation for them to submit proposals for their own projects or even find employment opportunities for themselves.
In your experience, what happens to PSI fellows after their fellowships end?
Given that fellows stay here for up to three years, we have only had one candidate whose fellowship at the University of Potsdam has come to an end. He applied for another research fellowship and is now affiliated with a host institution in Berlin.
Do you think the program has changed over the years? How?
In the early years, funding volume and call frequency seemed uncertain, but now the program is well-funded and has a solid foundation. Calls are now published twice a year for about 30 fellowships throughout Germany, so planning has become much more dependable.
But the program has also become more competitive. While the chances for success were relatively high in the first few years of the application process, there are now fewer fellowships per application round, but more nominations. Furthermore, AvH changed the program this year and now offers a choice between a fellowship or an employment contract. This is a wonderful option for the candidates, but also results in more administrative work on our side, of course.
Thank you very much!
The interview is part of a series on the Philipp Schwartz Initiative. You can find the interview with Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert here.