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Scholars at risk receiving protection in Freiburg for three years

Dr. Enno Aufderheide, a member of the FRIAS steering committee and secretary general of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation, on the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative


Science is only wanted when it fits our needs and values.
As soon as it provokes uncomfortable thoughts, humankind is quick to ignore it.”

(Luna Darko, Myko. Thoughts at Night)

Critical voices from scientists, their ideas and thoughts run the risk of simply being ignored if they don’t fit the predominant ideology. In autocratically ruled countries or states with an instable political system it often doesn’t stop at that. An academic career comes at certain risks, dismissals, persecution, now and then even the danger to life and limb.

To support “scholars at risk” and to set a signal for the freedom of research, the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation and the Foreign Office launched the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative in 2015. German universities and research institutes receive funding to host academics in danger for a period of one to two years and to help them finding their way into the German science system.

Not least because of the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative, the international community considers Germany as playing an eminent role in maintaining the freedom of science and research. The name of the initiative, however, keeps alive the memory of an entirely different situation in Germany: Among thousands of researchers and scientists who were dismissed in 1933 because of their Jewish origin or their political views, was the anatomist Philipp Schwartz. After his migration to Zurich, he founded the so-called “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (Advisory Office for German Scientists), which supported German researchers until 1946 in settling down abroad. Schwartz, too, finally received a professorial chair at the University of Istanbul.

During the last call for applications, 39 researchers were brought to Germany by the initiative, the larger part coming from Turkey and Syria. So far five of them have been admitted to the University of Freiburg. Here FRIAS comes into play: In collaboration with the University’s International Office, FRIAS is responsible for carrying out the initiative, from selecting and hosting researchers to advising what further possibilities there will be for these academics after the scholarships expire.

We talked with Dr. Enno Aufderheide, a member of the FRIAS steering committee and secretary general of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation about the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative and FRIAS as a new academic home for scholars at risk.

Porträt AufderheideDr. Aufderheide, since 2010 you have been working as secretary general of the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation. During your term of office, the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative was called into being. How do you assess the initiative after five years?

With the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative we boasted a sign of hope and confessed very clearly that we in Germany vouch for academic freedom. Of course, it is not only about the symbolic act: For about 200 endangered researchers, German research institutions established a safe harbor and allowed them a fresh start. In addition to that, about 30 German institutions are involved in the international network “Scholars at Risk”.


The Initiative sets a strong sign for the freedom of science. Do you think that the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative has had any effects on the public awareness in the home countries of the concerned researchers?

Regarding the broader public awareness, one should probably rather ask the PSI scholarship holders, since they have a better understanding of the situation on site. What I can say, however, is that the governments certainly take note of the reception of their citizen into the programme. They claim that researchers are not prosecuted for political reasons but because of criminal acts. When accepting a researcher into the programme, we make a clear statement that we will not accept when critical opinions are treated as criminal or even terroristic. It seems to me that this signal is understood.

Only a century ago, researchers in Germany were prosecuted because of their origin and political views. Now we invite researchers who run into the danger of being muzzled in their homecountries. What makes Germany a safe harbor for scholars at risk?

The broad support from politics and society!

Racism and right-wing terrorism are a huge problem, but the overwhelming majority of the population favors the idea of helping people in existential distress. This supports our initiative, ideally and materially.

How can the German science system benefit from the endangered researchers?

When asked for feedback, all of the hosts stress that the researchers coming with the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative are a real asset. They contribute to the universities with their academic experiences, and an approach that is quite different from ours. Especially those who come from countries that are not familiar to us, enrich us in terms of culture. And last but not least they remind us of how privileged we are and what freedoms we take for granted. This, I believe, is a strong motivation to step in actively for freedom and a culture of welcome – and this benefits the whole society.

What are the biggest challenges the academics in danger have to face, at home and in their new academic homes? How can we support them?

The main challenge back at home surely was what led to migrating: occupational bans, discrimination, criminalization and dangers to life and limb. Coming to a new home, the researchers have to learn a new language and face the challenge of integrating into a different society. And, on top of that, they find themselves in a tough academic competition. Sometimes they also suffer from traumas as result of persecution and flight. From talking to our researchers we have learned that understanding, personal contact and opening a dialogue are the most valuable measures of support. What we can do is to open our own networks: We can offer support and create new connections, which is important in finding new professional perspectives.

When accepted to the programme, researchers usually stay for two years in Germany, sometimes their stay can be extended. What are the perspectives for the time after?

As said before: The professional perspective certainly is a predominant one. Doing research under conditions that are not ideal and having suffered from political persecution often is a disadvantage that can hardly be caught up. For that reason, researchers often have to find new paths outside academia – which comes at the cost of fundamentally rethinking one’s goals and of giving up on long-cherished dreams. Just one among many other incredible achievements our Philipp-Schwartz scholarship holders accomplish and I can only admire.

As a member of the steering committee, you know FRIAS inside and out. What makes FRIAS special for endangered researchers?

It sounds a bit dramatic, but FRIAS offers a home, a place where those supported can participate in the academic discourse – because all of them are researchers with heart and soul. And it offers a place where they can get support for the many challenges, both private and professional, they have to face. This cannot be valued enough. In our experience it is the support of the hosting institutions that is vital for the success of the Philipp-Schwartz-Initiative, that our researchers find not only a sign of hope but successfully create a new life.

03/03/2020 | VSp