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22 March 2004

Nobel Prize Nurseries

Heidelberg professor Jürgen Wolfrum on chances for top-flight research in Germany: "We can reverse the trend if we really want to!"

"Send more!" is the reaction of research colleagues in the United States to the quality of the doctoral students coming from Professor Jürgen Wolfrum. His students are hard-working, well-trained and, if anything, even better at working on their own than their same-age American counterparts. On the one hand, this is a compliment for the German university system. But it also poses a threat. Many of the young scientists find things so congenial on the other side of the ocean that they do not want to come back. So Germany shoulders the responsibility of training them and the United States reaps the rewards. And those rewards represent immense scientific potential for the future. "Many factors have contributed to this development," says Jürgen Wolfrum, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Heidelberg. "And it's going to take a huge effort to reverse the trend." But Wolfrum is still optimistic. "We can do it if we really want to!"

In the last 20 years, Wolfrum has supervised some 150 doctoral students. His conviction is that if the German research situation is in the doldrums at the moment, it cannot be improved by tackling just one aspect alone. To revamp large-scale top-flight research in future, attitudes will have to change at all levels: the state, the universities, society and individuals all need to think again. "One thing's for sure," Wolfrum insists. "Elites cannot be ordained. The ongoing discussion revolves around the wrong priorities." One of Wolfrum's most famous former charges is Wolfgang Ketterle, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for his work on Bose-Einstein condensation. Ketterle worked at the Institute of Physical Chemistry in Heidelberg from 1988 to 1990 and it was here that he conducted the first experiments ever on the visualisation of pollutants in running motor engines. Today he teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Ketterle is a good example of the personal characteristics that lead to success," says Wolfrum. Thanks to his ability to think back and forth between different scientific disciplines, Ketterle is eminently well equipped to tackle complex problems in small, carefully planned stages. Another thing he is good at is attracting outstanding doctoral students and committing them to a joint research venture by arousing their enthusiasm. "Enthusiasm and the unconditional desire for excellence are necessary if a young scientist really wants to go places. You can't keep up with the best on a 35-hour-week basis. What we need here in Germany is a change of mentality."

When it comes to creating the parameters in which top-flight research can thrive, the state and the universities need to work together more closely and more effectively. Wolfrum has identified three major factors in this process: scientific equipment, salaries and the researchers' personal environments. "A top-level researcher should not be burdened with too much bureaucracy. He wants to do his research work, that's his main impetus. He must be given the space, the equipment and the co-workers he needs — and quickly!" Wolfrum insists. At present, joint efforts are being made to keep Joachim Spatz, professor of biophysical chemistry, in Heidelberg, although he has received a number of offers from abroad. A major factor in Germany's favour is the cultural environment. "This soft factor cannot be quantified, but it is frequently the clinching thing." Christof Scholz, for example, rejected an offer from Stanford University and accepted an appointment at the University of Duisburg/Essen instead. Claus Seidel is now professor of physical chemistry in Düsseldorf, while Markus Sauer decided in favour of an appointment in Bielefeld as professor of experimental physics. These two former co-workers of Wolfrum's were awarded the Federal Ministry of Research and Higher Education's BioFuture Prize for upcoming scientists, worth 3 million marks. Swift availability and unbureaucratic use of these resources at the discretion of the recipients have put their research projects on the right road and kept them in Germany.

So well-endowed awards are another major factor. In this way, researchers can use money on ambitious projects where the outcome may be uncertain. Far too many innovative research projects fail in Germany because too many people have misgivings about the likelihood of success. If people were prepared to think again in these respects, says Wolfrum, then Germany could become a good "nursery" for Nobel Prize winners again. "Good professors are a multiplying factor. They attract the most highly motivated doctoral students and such research teams achieve the best research results. It's time to get this process on the road!"

Dr. Johannes Schnurr

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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