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Scientific exchange in times of Corona: DAAD President: "Bonners should be more self-confident"

Scientific exchange in times of Corona : DAAD President: "Bonners should be more self-confident"

Professor Joybrato Mukherjee, the President of the Bonn-based German Academic Exchange Service, talks in an interview about science in Corona times and the Rhineland's cosmopolitanism.

In Corona times, the Bonn-based German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has to think about new ways of doing its core business. Its President, Professor Joybrato Mukherjee (47), also spoke about this with Margit Warken-Dieke and Wolfgang Pichler.

How is the DAAD regulating its core business, international academic exchange, in the pandemic?

Professor Joybrato Mukherjee: Mobility, worldwide networking, the gathering of intercultural experience - all these things will remain severely restricted for the foreseeable future. That means we have to come to terms with the "new normal“.

What could that look like?

Mukherjee: First of all, we don't always have to think about mobility and intercultural experience together. Students who want to go abroad with us in the winter semester can start their studies digitally and only travel to their place of study later. For those students who have a scholarship for a country to which they cannot travel in the foreseeable future, we offer to postpone their scholarship, and in individual cases, we also offer other destinations.

Do the numbers of applicants suffer?

Mukherjee: No, there are no indications of this. The digital programmes are well received. The great hunger for travel and intercultural exchange remains, as the enquiries about our scholarship offers show. We won't have the exact number of applicants for a few weeks until the application deadlines for major scholarship programmes end. We do not currently expect a large drop in applications.

"Just because teaching is digital doesn't mean it's any better“

Keyword digital: Is the DAAD taking care of standardising the many online offerings?

Mukherjee: Our core task is to promote the internationalisation of universities, not digitisation. However, we have launched two programmes to support universities in digitising international programmes. We make sure that the universities we support offer high-quality teaching. Just because teaching is digital does not mean that it is directly better. We have also had this experience at my university, in Giessen.

It suffered a total digital crash on 8 December 2019 ...

Mukherjee: That is true. But the conclusion cannot be that we are abandoning digital options. Even after Corona, much of teaching will continue to be digital. What we have all learned: We have to significantly increase safety standards.

Is scientific internationality a loser of the pandemic?

Mukherjee: The pandemic restricts mobility and internationalisation. However, it is also a global challenge that 195 countries are working intensively on. We can only pass it, only develop vaccines, if the world's best researchers work together in international, diverse teams. So Corona also shows how important internationalisation is.

Aren't there tendencies of nationalisation in the vaccine race? The risk of collaboration becoming competition?

Mukherjee: Corona is not a game changer, but an accelerator. It shows, as if under a magnifying glass, what developments we have had for several years now. It is true that we have increasingly nationalistic agendas, even in core EU countries, not just since Corona. But Corona is an excellent illustration of where these developments lead once you are in a crisis. That is why it is now very much up to us in Europe, because we have a living model of supranational cooperation. If we tackle it wisely, we can show on a European scale how real cooperation works for the benefit of many countries. And in the process, science can show how to work together and create added value for all.

"Corona is an accelerator“

Do you have an example of this?

Mukherjee: There are many DAAD alumni among the top scientists working on research into the virus. One such example is the Bonn virologist Professor Hendrik Streeck, who(m) we brought together with a virologist from Cairo: The colleague wanted to replicate Streeck's Heinsberg study in Cairo. This shows how the exchange we promoted is also later reflected in the behaviour of top scientists. For them it has a very high value.

Does Germany have a special role in dealing with the pandemic?

Mukherjee: Since March, at least, Germany has been characterised by the extent to which politics has acted rationally and with an affinity for science, and also reacted to new findings. This development is viewed very positively internationally. I also believe that we in Germany have come through the crisis relatively well so far, because the scientific mainstream - I'll leave the "noises" to the left and right - is strongly involved in the formation of political and social opinion. One thing is clear: in the end, politics must legitimise its own decisions; scientists cannot do that.

Do you see a change from scepticism about science (for example, due to climate change denials) to enthusiasm for science?

Mukherjee: Yes. People follow the development of case numbers every day, listen to what this expert says. Students ask how they can become virologists. Well, that's largely up to Christian Drosten. But there is a great deal of interest in how science can help us get through the crisis.

So we are on the right track?

Mukherjee: Yes, but we also have to be careful. Helmut Schmidt once said with reference to the Nazi era: "The Germans remain an endangered people.“ I believe that two things are always present here: The great opportunity is to rationally turn to a crisis and tackle it. Thank God, that is what is shaping this country at the moment. It also has a lot to do with wise political leadership - also compared to other countries. But there is also the danger of drifting away, and our history proves that.

"The Germans remain an endangered people“

What can science do to encourage sceptics and deniers to rethink?

Mukherjee: As annoying and unacceptable as the behaviour of some "loudspeakers" may be, we have to see that the situation is not easy for many. Many are increasingly annoyed and long for normality. That is understandable from my point of view (as a trained secondary school teacher). That's why I see dealing with the critics as a permanent pedagogical task for the coming months. We are dependent on people taking responsibility for their own actions, based on their own insight. That is exhausting, but that is our basic order. It is not done with fines. We are not a limited partnership and we do not want a repressive police state.

Consequences for science?

Mukherjee: It has to explain what it does and why: (after all, we do it with taxpayers' money), what the latest findings are and where there is doubt. This includes developing the state of knowledge. In the case of masks, for instance, they became mandatory because of new findings on aerosols. Corona shows how important science communication is.

"Bonn is a top location“

Will Bonn remain the DAAD headquarters?

Mukherjee: Yes.

OK. And what else?

Mukherjee: The Bonners should be much more self-confident. For the DAAD, there is no reason to move. Bonn is a top location. It has a density of academic and research organisations that is unparalleled anywhere else in Germany. Measured by the Excellence Strategy, we have the most successful university here and, with the German Research Foundation, the most important research funding organisation.

What else could such self-confidence be based on?

Mukherjee: On people themselves and their liberal, cosmopolitan nature. There may be more beautiful cities, but the human race may not be the same as here. That applies to the whole Rhineland. My parents came to Düren in the 1960s and were thrilled by the cosmopolitan mentality.

(Original text: Margit Warken-Dieke / Translation: Mareike Graepel)