A Small Network of Arab and German Academics Aspires to Have a Large Impact

/ 23 Mar 2020

A Small Network of Arab and German Academics Aspires to Have a Large Impact

A few years ago, Verena Lepper, a professor and curator of the Papyrus and Manuscript Collection at Germany’s Egyptian Museum in Berlin, sat down in a café with a professor of chemistry from Sudan.

Over coffee, they came up with the idea for a multidisciplinary research project into the origins of ancient pottery shards from the 3rd century B.C., found in Sudan. The project would combine her expertise as an Egyptologist with the chemistry professor’s ability to produce a sort of chemical “fingerprinting,” revealing where and when the clay pieces had been produced.

“I would not have met a chemistry professor from Khartoum in my normal academic life,” says Lepper. But both academics were members of a recently created academic institution, the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities, or AGYA. In fact, Lepper is the group’s founding director.

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Established in 2013 and funded in large part by the German government, AGYA is open to early-career academics from any academic discipline, from the arts and humanities to those in the sciences or technical specialties. The only condition is that the participants be affiliated with an academic institution. The program’s mission is to promote innovative academic cooperation, with the requirement that all projects must be both international and interdisciplinary.

“What AGYA brought to my career was first a series of networking opportunities. I got to meet with excellent German and Arab scientists whom I couldn’t have met otherwise.”

Zeina Hobaika   A biochemist and department chair at St. Joseph University of Beirut

Half of the academy’s 50 members are from Germany and half are from Arab countries. Members participate for five-year terms, after which they join an alumni network, which currently includes 50 alumni.

An eighth annual selection is underway, with a deadline of March 29, to choose five new German and five new Arab members.

“We have highly competitive admissions,” says Lepper. “We get up to 400 applications for 10 seats.”

The academy’s working language is English; knowledge of German or Arabic is not a requirement.

Arab and German Networking Opportunities

So what does membership bring? Plenty, say members. “What AGYA brought to my career was first a series of networking opportunities. I got to meet with excellent German and Arab scientists whom I couldn’t have met otherwise,” says Zeina Hobaika, an associate professor of biochemistry and department chair at St. Joseph University of Beirut.

Additionally, membership enabled her to participate in innovative research projects funded by the academy. These included one on smart and sustainable cities, and another on the production of energy from waste. “I have been collaborating with scientists from various backgrounds,” says Hobaika, “from the hard sciences and from the social sciences, like sociology.”

The academy has six working groups: Arab and German education; common heritage and common challenges; energy, water and environment; innovation; transformation; and health and society. Members can join one or several. Each working group receives a pot of money and its members decide among themselves which research projects to fund.

Research collaborations funded by the Arab-German Young Academy of Arts and Sciences have to be international and the researchers must be able to visit each other’s workplaces (Photo courtesy of AGYA).
Research collaborations funded by the Arab-German Young Academy of Arts and Sciences have to be international and the researchers must be able to visit each other’s workplaces (Photo courtesy of AGYA).

Academy members can also seek funding for “tandem projects” with just one other academy member, as long as they are both from a different specialty. You will not get funding for a project with a research partner “who does exactly the same thing as you do,” says Lepper.

The academy sees its mission as stimulating research “on the boundary between science and society” and promoting cooperation among scientists from a variety of countries.

“A remarkable thing about AGYA,” says Hobaika, “is that it promotes not only North-South cooperation, but South-South as well.” And despite its relatively small size, Lepper says national authorities come to AGYA to seek advice in science and academic issues.

Women’s Leadership Encouraged

Because it operates in the Arab region where gender inequality can be high and the participation of women in the higher echelons of science and education is sometimes a challenge, the academy has taken a strong stance on this issue. It “actively encourages women’s leadership within the Academy’s structures, and carries out research projects that focus on women’s role in research, knowledge production, education policy and outreach.”

Arab and German researchers involved in AGYA gather twice a year—once in Germany and once in an Arab country—for face-to-face discussions and to discuss innovative research partnerships (Photo courtesy of AGYA).
Arab and German researchers involved in AGYA gather twice a year—once in Germany and once in an Arab country—for face-to-face discussions and to discuss innovative research partnerships (Photo courtesy of AGYA).

An example was a recent academy lecture series on “Contemporary Women Philosophers in Arab Countries: Intellectual Portraits.”

The academy is apolitical, but has to work within existing international political tensions. A semi-annual general assembly alternates between Germany and an Arab venue. This year the Arab gathering is scheduled to take place in Kuwait, a country chosen because both Egyptians and Qataris can travel there despite the political split between Qatar and the rest of the Arab world.  (See a related article, “Diplomatic Crisis Over Qatar Worries Gulf Educators.”)

Jan Friesen, an expert in ecohydrology at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, in Leipzig, Germany, finished a five-year membership of AGYA and is now an alumnus. He says the academy provides an opportunity to “test out ideas,” especially unconventional ones, presented by groups of academy members. Some of these include ideas to communicate academic and artistic work to a wider public, such as:

  • Publishing a science comic book with the results of research into halophytes (salt tolerant plants)
  • A bus and boat tour of Malta, with stops at several sites to present research results on different aspects of the island nation’s history
  • Mounting an exhibit of art by Syrian refugees in Germany in combination with the presentation of research into the refugee crisis.

The research projects funded by the academy tend to be short and relatively small in scale. “In terms of funding, it doesn’t make a huge impact,” says Friesen. “It is the networking that makes the impact.”

“We’re a rather small circle of 100 people and it’s easy to call one of the fellows and discuss a new project.”

Friesen points out that despite the stiff competition to be admitted to the academy, the ambience within the organization is one of collaboration rather than competition. “In my own institution, you’re always competing for funding and promotions,” he says. “But inside AGYA that’s taken away and it’s so much easier to collaborate with one another.”




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