Interview with Dr. Almut Steinbach

Dr. Almut Steinbach, Head of the International Team
Dr. Almut Steinbach, Head of the International Team

What does the Foundation wish to achieve by funding Junior and Senior Fellowships for African researchers?

Dr. Almut Steinbach: These calls are aimed at postdocs. The initial funding phase, involving large-scale transnational cooperation projects, is dedicated to supporting PhD candidates. The Fellowships are granted in the subsequent second stage. One of the main goals is to anchor young researchers at their home universities in Africa. At the same time, with the help of mentors and their cooperation partners they should build up international networks. In so doing, we place equal importance on South-South cooperation and the strengthening of cooperation with research institutions in Germany and other European countries. In turn, our Fellows become involved in training other young scholars and scientists: For instance, in the case of Junior Fellowships, Master students are brought into their projects, and our senior fellows help supervise doctoral students. An overriding consideration is to promote networking among all the Fellows. Not infrequently, this results in setting up joint research projects beyond national borders. Moreover, we attempt to build bridges between the Francophone and Anglophone regions of Africa.

Why does the Foundation consider it so important to support in particular researchers inside Africa?

Dr. Almut Steinbach: The Volkswagen Foundation’s funding portfolio encompasses a number of international initiatives and doesn’t focus solely on Africa. Other regions – like Central Asia, for instance – are also in the focus of funding. However, in Africa we perceive a particular need to support research at the postdoc level: On the one hand, in order to create a critical mass of well-qualified junior researchers and because, as a rule, postdocs are strongly involved in academic teaching. The program permits them to a considerable degree to concentrate on their own individual research and at the same time to strengthen cooperation with African and other international partners. And last but not least, we want to create the conditions to make research careers an attractive alternative to industry and non-profit organizations.

So far, what impressions have you gained concerning Africa as a research location, and how do you expect things to develop in future?

Dr. Almut Steinbach: When we started our fellowship program, a lot of experts doubted we would be able to attract sufficient numbers of qualified postdocs. Notwithstanding, experience has shown that our calls continually generate great interest in this form of support for research. The engineering disciplines remain the exception to the rule: Here it is much more difficult to win over well-qualified young people for careers in science. It is extremely difficult to say how the research landscape and research funding in Africa will develop over the longer term. This is something we intend to discuss with the experts who will be attending our major Africa conference shortly to be held in Hanover. There is much to suggest that certainly at some African locations research remains at high levels or will establish itself there. The pivotal question, though, is how research activities will be able to spread and subsequently become anchored at the smaller and less-prestigious universities.

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