Science diplomacy’s key role building peace: DAAD chief

In an era of rising authoritarianism, increasing political conflict, rapid geopolitical changes, and rising tension and instability around the world – and now amid the most potentially dangerous conflict since the Cold War, involving a major nuclear military power invading its neighbour – science diplomacy has become a pillar of German foreign policy.

The German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, with branch offices in more than 100 countries and lectureships teaching German language and culture in 130 or more countries, is the country's leading network of academic exchange and collaboration and has a leading role to fulfil.

In this exclusive interview with University World News, Professor Joybrato Mukherjee, president of DAAD, talks about the crucial role that science diplomacy can play in building trust and reducing conflict, even in partner countries that do not share the same values, and about how DAAD is supporting the work that institutions and individuals do in this field, as well as how it helps them negotiate a way through the challenges.

He also talks about the potential impact of impending budget cuts on DAAD’s work and the impact on science cooperation between Europe and the UK of post-Brexit tensions and divergence.

What are your views on the role of science diplomacy – both in terms of how the universities are affected and also in terms of what universities can contribute to science and political developments in general?

I recently sketched out some considerations elsewhere focusing on the relation between (1) international exchange and international relations of universities, (2) building a solid base of trust between international partners – institutions and individuals alike – and (3) security.

Here in Germany, we are currently also discussing the architecture, structure, shape and context of our new national security strategy.

My aim is to make clear to everyone in politics, but also in the public sphere, that what we do when it comes to science diplomacy and what we do in international exchange between international institutions and between individuals in academia is not a manifestation of academic folklore.

Quite the contrary: it is relevant to our national security, because when we exchange scientific ideas, exchange people, work together in research projects, send students to other countries to gain their first intercultural experiences, then this is all about building a base of confidence and trust between international partners, which is a prerequisite for multilateralism and the shaping of global security.

This is one of the basic ideas of science diplomacy, and I stand by the general notion that what we do is essentially confidence-building and trust-building, and that the concept of trust is relevant to security.
Science diplomacy creates a base of trust, especially with societies which do not fully share our values.

The German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt – AA) is currently strongly focusing on a value-based foreign policy, and in my opinion, ‘value-based’ cannot, and should not, mean that we only collaborate with societies and peoples which share exactly our understanding of the state of law and our understanding of the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, the freedom of science and research.

Since 24 February, I have had the impression that we at times jump too easily to far-reaching conclusions based on the unique situation that we have with Russia. We don’t have that many countries of that calibre, a member of the UN Security Council, which simply invades their neighbours. This is – thank God – a unique circumstance, and we should not generalise away from the Russian example to other countries that we perceive as being challenging.

Are there any pragmatic examples, or concepts, to inform collaboration with partners in countries considered a threat either militarily, or in relation to theft of research, etc.? What would examples from German higher education be like?

In Germany, we have established the Kompetenzzentrum Internationale Wissenschaftskooperationen or KIWi (a competence centre for international academic collaboration) under the auspices of DAAD, based on a recommendation by the Wissenschaftsrat, the German Science and Humanities Council. Its aim and task is, basically, to provide counselling and advice to higher education institutions when they tap into new collaboration schemes, or when they want to expand existing collaborations with challenging partner countries.

For example: What do they have to take into consideration when entering a new cooperation agreement with a university in Asia or Africa? Which university is a suitable partner? What are the legal regulations in authoritarian countries when it comes to, for example, research in genetics or other natural sciences? What are the restrictions that one has to keep in mind? These are some of the questions that the KIWi provides answers for in order to support our autonomous member universities.

At the end of the day, it is of course for every single institution and individual to make their own decisions.

The DAAD, too, has to negotiate its standards with a number of partner countries in a wide range of processes. Let me give you a concrete example: we have a co-funded scholarship programme in place with the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC).

We at DAAD have a selection process including an interview with the applicant according to German standards. The CSC has a Chinese procedure according to Chinese standards, which also includes interview recordings. Now, of course, we know that producing recordings may not only be done for quality management of the interview process. We said this is not in line with our standards. We settled on conducting two separate processes. We don’t interfere with the Chinese procedure, and they don’t interfere with ours. We end up with two lists of candidates that are then merged into a consolidated joint list of candidates that receive funding – with only those candidates who appeared on both lists making it onto the joint list.

How can science and higher education contribute to reducing conflict and international political tension?

There are three levels at which one could discuss the role of higher education when it comes to reducing conflict potential and political tension between two countries or two societies. The first one is a rather abstract level. Whenever students, researchers, instructors or lecturers move to another country, they interact with people from that country. This can always help to reduce tension between two countries simply by way of interaction. This is also something which generates a few worries on our side when it comes to Russia.

All German science organisations – rightly so, I believe – stopped their contacts with Russian institutions, and we no longer fund academic mobility from Germany to Russia. Of course, what we now fear is that this lack of intercultural exchange may also lead to even more tensions between our two countries. But at this stage there is no alternative.

The second level I want to mention is that against the background of our shared challenges on this one planet Earth in the Anthropocene, what we can, and should always, do is to collaborate on research projects in international teams, bringing people from diverse cultures and different countries together. In diverse teams, we achieve the best results, as we all know, and in these international teams, we may address the challenges that we have to face jointly as humankind. If the two sides see that these collaborations benefit both of them, then it may also help to reduce political tensions, I believe.

The third level is bringing scientific research and expertise into post-conflict or peace processes to show that science and research are relevant to these processes. At DAAD we are doing this, for example, in Colombia. After the peace treaty ending decades of civil war between the Colombian government and FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia] was signed in 2016 we built up a German-Colombian peace institute, CAPAZ [the German Colombian Peace Institute]. It consists of a consortium of Colombian and German universities, which receive funding from the AA [German Federal Funding Office]. Their task is to provide advice to the Colombian stakeholders in the peace process, including politicians and leading figures in civil society and other stakeholders when it comes to shaping the post-conflict process.

What should a reform of the state look like? How should a system of transitional justice be shaped? How can former FARC rebels be integrated into the job market? What models are there elsewhere in the world that could be a template for Colombia? These are questions that the peace institute deals with. It all shows people in Colombia in a very practical way that science and research are really relevant for the peace process, which can generate a very different kind of peace process ownership in Colombian society.

How are budget cuts affecting DAAD’s work?

We are still in the process of negotiating the budget with the members of parliament. At this stage, we have a budget plan decided on by the federal cabinet. In the current phase, we hope that the members of parliament will listen to our arguments and realise that the budget cuts envisaged by the government for DAAD, the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation (AvH) and the Goethe-Institute will be a fatal blow to our efforts in science diplomacy and to our standing in the world.

What it really means is that if the budget plan is passed by parliament unchanged, we will have to reduce our portfolio drastically. Past funding decisions have covered two to four years, so if we grant a scholarship to an individual, it is usually for such a period. But if we were to reduce our budget expenses next year by €13 million (US$12.67) compared to 2021, then this would mean that a range of short-term programmes will not be announced at all next year.

Additionally, we would definitely have to cut the numbers of long-term scholarships by 50%.
For example, there are 450 lecturer positions we fund at universities worldwide for teaching German culture and language. None of the 100 positions that will become vacant at the universities next year will be filled if the budget plan becomes reality.

What is cooperation with African universities going to look like given DAAD budget cuts on the one hand and, on the other, issues facing the continent, such as the food crisis or climate change, both of which require academic input?

The budget cuts I mentioned refer to the AA, which accounts for 30% of our budget. This includes institutional funding for programmes and worldwide activities of DAAD. A comparable sum coming from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is not affected by the budget cuts at this stage. The majority of funding for programmes with partners in Africa is provided by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and this budget is not affected either. But, of course, the general scholarship programmes I referred to earlier on are, so this also affects students and researchers from African countries.

How is DAAD facilitating support for Ukrainian institutions, students and academics?

This is an area in which our government has provided a substantial additional budget for various Ukraine-related activities in the current fiscal year 2022. I would like to point out three or four particularly important activities launched by DAAD.

Already in April [2022], responding to requests by the 16 Federal State ministers and the BMBF, we launched the Nationale Akademische Kontaktstelle Ukraine [National Academic Contact Point Ukraine] for students, researchers and scientists from Ukraine. It is a website bringing together all the relevant information on the scholarship programmes for Ukrainian refugees offered by German universities, any of the 16 states, the Volkswagen Stiftung, the German Research Foundation, etc., and also information about the German higher education system and all relevant legal issues. The website, which is available in Ukrainian, German and English, is visited by 3,000 people on an average every day, and it is constantly being updated.

Secondly, we have opened our INTEGRA programme, launched in 2015 to Ukrainian students with additional funding from government. INTEGRA enables academically qualified refugees to prepare for admission to regular degree programmes. It helps them to gain a foothold at German universities by offering them language instruction and subject-related preparatory courses.

Thirdly, we have provided an additional budget for Ukrainian students to all German universities for the STIBET [scholarship and support] programme, which is the general framework programme for all universities to fund capacities and structures for international students (welcome centres, study buddy programmes, advice for students).

Another programme I’m particularly proud of is ‘Ukraine Digital’, funded by the federal government and administered by DAAD. Digital formats for study courses are to be designed by German universities and their partner institutions in Ukraine, so that Ukrainian students can take part in these courses and then decide whether they want to continue in Germany or in Ukraine.

This programme is also tailor-made for all those students who have not been able to leave their country (consider male students that have not been allowed to leave Ukraine since March). Many students seek to return to Ukraine as early as possible, so whatever we design should enable them to be flexible in this respect.

How do DAAD and the AvH decide on who, as an academic, is in particular need of protection? Are contingents fixed in any way regarding academics from Ukraine?

The AvH-funded Philipp Schwarz Initiative was launched in 2016 to support post-docs and senior researchers at risk. Two years ago, we started funding what you could call a sister programme named after Hilde Domin, which was designed according to the template of the AvH programme, but addresses undergraduate students, graduate students and PhD students.

Both programmes offer scholarships for those students or researchers who are under attack, discriminated against, or excluded from study programmes in their home country.

At this stage, there is no competition between different people from different countries in different conflict regions because so far we have always received additional funding for additional scholarships, including, for example, for additional cohorts from Afghanistan or Ukraine.

Coming back to Ukraine, would you like to comment further on what help Ukrainian universities are really looking for?

My impression from talks with partner organisations and rectors of universities in Ukraine is that what we must understand is that we should not only provide academic aid and scholarships to Ukrainian students and researchers in the current war situation. What Ukrainian partners are extremely interested in is long-term strategies for intensifying research partnerships with institutions in Germany and Western Europe and long-term scholarship exchange programmes for students and researchers. They have a very clear approach: they want to use science and research as a platform for intensifying ties with the West. So they have a very clear science-diplomacy approach.

It is interesting that you make this point. If we look elsewhere, at relations between the UK and Europe post-Brexit – where you see the UK dropping the Erasmus scheme and supporting study opportunities beyond Europe in its replacement, the Turing scheme, and the EU blocking UK association to Horizon Europe due to wider political issues, particularly the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol – are we seeing the opposite approach: one of deconstructing science diplomacy?

No, I don’t say so. I think the post Brexit situation is complex and we would all wish for a solution with regard to the European programmes, including Erasmus. I don’t think that is deconstructivism at work. I think academic relations between Britain and the EU are not the priority in the political discussion between the two sides. What I would like to see is that over the next couple of months we find a package with all the solutions for all the open questions and issues that are still unsolved.

This is not only about Horizon Europe. It is also the question of how we want to conduct mobility between Britain and Europe beyond Erasmus. What about all the unsolved visa issues? What about the legal requirements for students? So there are a number of open questions and what we want to see is that they are addressed in one go.

I don’t think this is devaluing science diplomacy, it is just that other fields of political action are prioritised.
Regarding Erasmus, we have always thought on continental Europe that it would be good to have Horizon Europe on the research side, and Erasmus on the student exchange side as two parts: part and parcel of one package. That these two have separated from each other, with Britain in one and out of the other, is a very sad development and says something about their priorities.

But this a very natural development after Brexit – and I say it without criticising anybody – that both sides have to redefine their role in the world in general, but also with regard to academic relations. For Britain the design of the Turing scheme confirms that Britain has a particular strategy and focus which is embedded in the Global Britain view of Britain in the future.

But continental Europe also has to redefine itself with regard to its academic relations with Britain. Britain is a very important target country – it has always been so – for, say, German students, and if certain programmes are no longer in place, like Erasmus, it takes a little bit of time for the German side to also redefine their interests and their priorities.