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Movers And Shakers

Helmut Schwarz

Physical chemist takes presidency of Germany's Humboldt Foundation

by Sarah Everts
January 21, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 3

Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

AND WOULD YOU like a BMW with that research award, sir?

A free car is hard to decline; likewise, the offer to head a German foundation that once provided a new BMW to its prestigious award recipients.

This month, Helmut Schwarz, a physical chemist at Berlin's Technical University, took on the presidency of the Humboldt Foundation, which each year provides grants to 600 international scholars, at all career stages, to spend a few months or even several years doing research in Germany.

Schwarz, who has an active research group and was previously vice president of Germany's major research funding agency, DFG, has purposely shied away from other presidency offers at universities and funding bodies. But the Humboldt offer of a five-year renewable term as president was too "hard to resist," he tells C&EN.

"Alexander von Humboldt was one of the very first true cosmopolitans," Schwarz says. "He was a person who crossed borders, not only in terms of the many subjects in which he was interested but geographically and culturally.

"He was all the time interested in how to bring together sciences, peace activities, and mutual understanding, and to bring South American culture to Europe and European ideas to other countries. Part of that spirit is still present in the Humboldt Foundation."

The foundation funds international academics—from postdocs and assistant professors all the way to Nobel Laureates. The idea is that bringing foreign talent into town helps diversify Germany's intellectual culture, Schwarz says.

Established in 1860 by Humboldt's friends after his death, the institution floundered during Germany's depression, Third Reich, and early postwar period until 1953, when it was reestablished under the presidency of Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg.

It's not hard to see why Schwarz's temperament might be attracted to the cosmopolitan vision of the Humboldt Foundation. The tall, thin 64-year-old attends the Berlin opera at least once a week, makes his daily 20-km round-trip commute by bicycle, and was once torn between a career in law, chemistry, or theater. As a scientist, Schwarz favors "blue-sky research" and "experiments that others think are unthinkable." In the early '90s, his group was the first to inject an atom (helium) into the center of a fullerene, and he was also one of the first to demonstrate that relativity plays an important role in bond energies.

With no quotas for subject matter, country of origin, or gender, the Humboldt Foundation ends up sponsoring a potpourri of research topics, two-thirds of which are currently in the natural sciences.

Conventional projects in, for example, ultrafast spectroscopy or alternative energy chemistry mingle with more quirky research ventures. Consider the project that mathematically models yarn structure and dynamics to understand textile characteristics, or art history projects to map how abstract scientific concepts have been visualized from the 16th century to the present.

Instead of quotas, "our focus is to invest in the particular person," Schwarz explains. And this includes that person's family, he notes. "If a scientist is here and the family is not happy, you just can't expect that he or she will do well," he says. So the foundation makes a point of doing more than doling out cash. This means providing German-language classes, medical advice, and logistical help getting the awardee's whole family settled—not to mention the former perk of providing a BMW to senior awardees. Rolled out in the 1960s, the practice was eventually stopped at the request of U.S. immigration officials after too many U.S. awardees tried to bring the vehicles home cheaply under a second-hand-car import loophole, Schwarz says.

BESIDES TAKING CARE of current awardees—so much so that some recipients feel overprotected, Schwarz says—the Humboldt staff maintains contact with 20,000 former Humboldtians from 125 countries, including 14 chemistry Nobel Laureates such as Robert Grubbs and Jean-Marie Lehn. "We have a slogan, like at Cambridge University," Schwarz says: "'Once a fellow, always a fellow.'" In keeping with this, the foundation funds German scientists to spend time in former fellows' labs around the world and organizes the donation of research equipment to the labs of alumni from developing nations.

In his first year as president, Schwarz will oversee a near doubling of the Humboldt Foundation's budget, from 60 million to 110 million euros. The increase comes from the German Ministry of Education & Research, which has given the foundation 50 million euros a year to bequeath 5 million-euro awards (about $7.3 million) to 10 international researchers who want to start academic careers in new or underdeveloped fields at German universities.

During his presidency, Schwarz plans to look into the possibility of raising enough money so the foundation can become independent of government funding, which currently comes from the Ministries of Research, Science & Technology; Foreign Affairs; and Economic Cooperation & Development. But for the most part Schwarz plans to take a "don't fix what ain't broke" attitude.

"There are some people who believe that you have to refurbish everything when you just enter office," he says. "I will just look and see if there is really anything that needs to be improved."

In fact, in a moment of doubt about whether he was the right candidate for the job, Schwarz says he joked to himself, "The Humboldt is so excellent that even the worst performer cannot do much harm."



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