Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the German Academic Exchange Service anniversary event marking “10 years of centres of excellence – sites of international cooperation in research, teaching and consultancy, as beacons of our cultural relations, education and science policy”

07.11.2019 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

We are gathered here today to express well-deserved congratulations. We congratulate the centres of excellence. I, too, want to offer my compliments.

You have passed the ten-year mark. This also means that you have tackled your first challenges, and you have since achieved a number of successes that give you cause to celebrate.

The Federal Foreign Office has a much older and good tradition, stretching over several decades, of supporting academic and scientific exchange abroad, in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service.

In 2009, this was complemented by an important political initiative. Ten years ago, then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier launched the Research and Academic Relations Initiative. It aimed to better integrate German universities into international networks and to increase international academic exchange.

Today, we can rightly say – as Ms Wintermantel has just beautifully described to us – that the centres of excellence are beacons of our cultural relations and education policy.

That’s because they help overcome divisions and bring together partners from around the world in the spheres of science, politics and civil society.

Because they help forge connections between areas of knowledge and thereby strengthen scientific progress and innovation in Germany and in partner countries.

Because they are key to showcasing Germany’s science, research and technology landscape, and for highlighting opportunities for cooperation with our foreign partners.

Ten years on, five centres of excellence are examples of how Germany is promoting young talent and close scientific cooperation together with four partner countries.

What I find particularly interesting is not only the geographic distribution of this work across three continents, but also the wide range of subject areas it covers, beginning with marine sciences and running all the way from physics and chemistry to the legal sciences.

In this way, every centre builds its own network. What is more, the centres form networks amongst themselves, with shared objectives.

The centres are working on something that I think is crucial for our international cultural relations and education policy – namely, they are each in their own discipline and with their specific geographic focus also working towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

The SDGs are the best positive political agenda that we have set ourselves. We need to more deeply embed them in our policies. Because, in a globalised world, foreign policy must also become much better at answering the question of “what kind of world do we want to live in?”

That, for me, is diplomacy for sustainability.

We must do our part to contribute to a peaceful, stable and just international order.

However, this aim is not achieved in isolation, but always through cooperation.

If you permit, I will pick out four projects from the wide range of activities that we are talking about today:

  • The degree programmes in Medical Informatics and Medical Physics at the Heidelberg Center for Latin America significantly contribute to better medical care in Chile – and thereby help make strides towards SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being.
  • The Ocean 2100 research project of CEMarin in Bogotá analyses the links between climate change and the development of coral reefs – meaning its activities are obviously connected to SDGs 13 and 14 (Climate Action and Life below Water).
  • The research projects of the German-Russian Interdisciplinary Centre that focus on the interfaces between physics, geophysics, chemistry and mathematics contribute to various SDGs, including promoting young scientific talent with regard to SDG 4 (Quality Education).
  • Finally, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) is an integral part of the mission of the Center for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG) in Bangkok and the youngest centre of excellence, the German-Colombian Peace Institute CAPAZ in Bogotá.

I’ve already had the opportunity to visit this last institution together with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and I hope to get a first-hand impression of other centres, as well.

At the Federal Foreign Office, we are already working on establishing new Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17). We are doing so through our efforts in multilateral organisations and international fora and our bilateral relations, as well as through regional cooperation.

Here, too, we benefit from the centres of excellence programme, which functions as a network of binational projects for the development of measures to reach global objectives through joint or individual effort, or through regional cooperation.

“Diplomacy for sustainability” therefore dovetails with our concept of science diplomacy, which is where foreign policy meets science.

The Humboldt anniversary year provided much impetus in this regard; it was and remains important that we give international prominence especially to the climate issue in the age of the Anthropocene.

Alexander von Humboldt, the great researcher and explorer, interestingly referred to nature as “the greatest republic of freedom”.

And we have set ourselves the task of strengthening freedom. Because it is precisely this freedom that is again under threat today. The freedom of nature is threatened by man. The freedom of democracy – and, with it, scientific freedom, is also under pressure.

In its report titled “Free to Think 2018”, the Scholars at Risk network refers to nearly 300 attacks on institutions of academic learning.

And the number of these cases that are being documented is rapidly rising. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Many incidents are not even reported.

One of the manifestations of hostility towards science is when results are ignored or denied because they do not fit into a certain worldview, or when research funding is cut and knowledge is called into question by ideology.

Many people and researchers are impacted both professionally and in a very personal way by crises and wars.

Together with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Federal Foreign Office has launched the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which also supports researchers who are forced to leave their home countries by giving them a new home. We have managed to assist 160 researchers from a range of countries to date.

We will continue to pursue this initiative, so that displaced and persecuted academics can live and work in Germany.

We are doing this on account of the responsibility stemming from our history – but we also know that these people contribute invaluable qualities: their creativity, their knowledge, their curiosity.

And I’m delighted that academics can weigh in on this and fight against these restrictions to the freedom of science by joining the March for Science, for example, thus sending a tangible signal.

The freedom of science is indispensable for democracy. And we need this for progress, development and prosperity. We need their curiosity and their knowledge.

Science has always been international and depends on exchange with others.

It is precisely this exchange that we need. After all, we firmly believe that we can achieve more together than by acting alone.

Academics are thus, by definition, multilateralists. They are needed in a world in which multilateralism is being called into question ever more frequently. It is up to all of us to inspire people around the globe to believe in their capacity to shape the world.

It beggars belief that some people still claim that climate change is not man-made or that culture and science are conceivable without international exchange.

According to this logic, the world is flat.

I find my encounters with scientists all around the world to be a source of encouragement, however. Many of them are members of this scientific family and network.

Learning from people and experiencing something completely new is perhaps one of the greatest things about being a politician.

Just last week, I had an opportunity in Boston to meet the German Nobel laureate and his team – which included three Germans – at MIT, where Prof. Wolfgang Ketterle is currently conducting research into quantum technology.

This basic research is extremely important, even if it’s impossible to tell in advance what it really achieves.

The weekend before that, I was in Princeton, for the second time, where another Humboldtian is researching the history of science.

And so many people, a large network, are holding exchanges with each other globally and have historical links, a connection, with the German Academic Exchange Service.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of these networks. These are precisely the international networks of science diplomacy that we want to strengthen.

That is why we are working with intermediaries, for example the German Academic Exchange Service and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, as well as with the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany and civil-society actors such as foundations. Cooperating with the business sector is also part of this.

Places such as centres of excellence are veritable hubs of this international network.

It goes without saying that we want to raise the profile of Germany even more as an international centre for science, research and innovation.

We need to strengthen Germany’s research and innovation profile particularly because we’re in a global competition for ideas, a global competition for the best talent.

We’re doing this around the world.

The network of the German Houses of Research and Innovation, which links up with the world’s scientific hubs, also helps with transnational education projects.

Examples here include the Sino-German School for Postgraduate Studies, the Turkish-German University in Istanbul and the centres of excellence in Africa.

Our focus here is on strengthening Africa as a location for study and science in a spirit of partnership – including with the help of German Academic Exchange Service scholarships and with a broad-based network of lecturers.

What is more, we’re founding centres of excellence for scientific cooperation and are planning to set up a university of applied sciences in East Africa and a teaching academy in Egypt.

All this means that we’re making an important contribution to quality, practice-oriented training and to creating new job prospects.

We also want to ensure that more students come to Germany and that more Germans study in other countries around the world.

We’re making good headway here. In 2018, 358,000 foreign students came to Germany, making it one of the top five destinations for such students.

With 140,000 beneficiaries in 2017, the German Academic Exchange Service is promoting more exchanges than any other organisation in the world.

I’m convinced that our common efforts are paying off. Sharing ideas and resources is well worth it.

This is because we have a common objective, namely living in a peaceful, just and free world.

Our science diplomacy is therefore committed to promoting academic mobility, deeper cooperation and academic freedom. It promotes access to education and science.

I want there to be a “diplomacy for sustainability”, a foreign policy that addresses HOW we want to live, our coexistence. Coexistence is a cultural issue. Science and education are always part of this.

I therefore wish to thank all of you most sincerely, ladies and gentlemen.

I want to thank you for all of your activities and your commitment. I wish to thank the representatives of centres of excellence, and, of course, also the universities that have breathed life into and fleshed out the centres of excellence.

I wish all of you every success and hope that you will continue to cast a wide net.

Ms Wintermantel,

I would like to extend my particular thanks to you and to the German Academic Exchange Service, which conceived this programme ten years ago and implemented it with great dedication. It is the world’s biggest agent of mobility for students and researchers. But it is much more than that, of course. It is an indispensable part of international education policy.

The entire Federal Foreign Office is looking forward to continuing to support the “world’s best minds” and to promoting science and its structures abroad.

I wish you all a productive exchange and a rewarding conference!

Thank you very much.


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