Humboldtians and the Changing Arctic

Humboldtians and the Changing Arctic

Betsy Baker (BUKA 1991)

Humboldtians work across diverse disciplines and geographies on cutting edge scientific and policy matters. Combining these varied approaches is precisely what will help expand our understanding of the multiple changes facing the Arctic in 2024 and beyond. Arctic amplification, which tops the list of those changes, refers to the Arctic warming three to four times faster than the rest of the world in recent decades. Arctic or polar amplification is a “robust fact” supported by observed measurements, climate models, and paleoclimate proxy records.

This essay aspires simply to 1) introduce a small number of issues associated with Arctic change and 2) prompt you to consider and share whether and how your work relates to it. Input from beyond the circle of Arctic science is especially welcome, as the field would benefit from viewing these challenges from a fresh perspective.

The cascading changes associated with Arctic warming have serious consequences for the world’s oceans, atmosphere, and ecosystems: from slowing ocean circulation and thawing permafrost to changed hydrology, terrestrial landscapes, and species habitats, to precarious energy and food security and increased access to an ice-diminished Arctic and its resources. The implications of these changes are not only scientific but cultural, socioeconomic, and geopolitical.

Over decades as a professor of international ocean and environmental law, I have been fortunate to work closely with natural and social scientists from around the world in seeking solutions to environmental and cultural challenges arising from Arctic change. On any given day, my inbox here in Alaska includes reports and inquiries ranging from indigenous knowledge and ecosystem expertise, to how changes in lipid content up and down the marine food web affect fish and marine mammal abundance, movement, and vitality, to diplomatic discussions on maritime boundaries in the Arctic, to the reduction of sulfur content in shipping fuel for improved air quality in coastal Arctic villages that abut increasingly busy shipping lanes. We worry about the breakdown in pan-Arctic scientific collaboration with—and the safety of—our Russian colleagues since Russia’s unprovoked further invasion of Ukraine, and the growing data gaps resulting from the inability to work across terrestrial borders and maritime boundaries in the Arctic. These are just a few of the many interconnected issues my colleagues and I work on.

In the dozen years that my own work has focused on the Arctic, the biggest and most promising change in the broader research community relates to Indigenous Knowledge. What began as a gradual shift from outright skepticism in the Western scientific community a decade ago is now widespread acknowledgment that Indigenous Knowledge provides essential insights and expertise for addressing Arctic issues. Indigenous colleagues and organizations have led the way with persistent advocacy and relationship building, consistently participating in scientific meetings and using platforms such as the Arctic Council, where they have formal participation rights, to demonstrate how critical their input is to informed Arctic policy. Today, most pan-Arctic research organizations and many governmental bodies have official policies to promote co-produced research that draws on Indigenous and other knowledge. A concrete and legally binding example from international law is the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement. Groundbreaking in many other ways, it also includes Indigenous Knowledge holders in the body charged with developing the scientific program for the parties to the agreement.

To assist in preparing this essay, American Friends of AvH helped me identify fellow US-based Humboldtians who work on Arctic issues, including Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette, a distinguished arctic marine and terrestrial paleoclimatologist—and skilled climate communicator—who chaired the US National Academies Polar Research Board for many years. Piper Foster Wilder, a sister German Chancellor Fellowship alumna, is founder and CEO of 60Hertz, whose software streamlines the maintenance of energy assets, especially for the microgrids that are essential in a state like Alaska that has no centralized power grid, let alone roads to connect most of our villages. Several other Humboldtians working on issues relevant to, even if not directly based in the Arctic, are associated with one of the world’s premier polar research institutes known as AWI: the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung in Potsdam, Germany. AWI’s now aging research icebreaker, the R/V Polarstern was the backbone of MOSAiC, a historic multi-year research program in the Arctic Ocean that for the first time gathered ship-borne observations year-round, even in the relentlessly dark polar winter.  The work of Humboldtian Dr. Alexandra Jahn, who directs the Polar and Paleoclimate modeling group at the University of Colorado, and participates in the multinational ship based Synoptic Arctic Survey, returns us to the starting point of this essay: both modeling and paleoclimatology confirm the existence of Arctic amplification.

If this short excursion through a sampling of challenges arising from Arctic change taps into your interests, or omits you or other Humboldtians in the field, please contact me to consider how we might amplify our knowledge in service of addressing those challenges.

The Time for Science Diplomacy Is Now. This Is the Time for Humboldtians.

Alexander von Humboldt was a German naturalist and explorer whose primary focus was on scientific exploration and research.

Alexander von Humboldt was also a science diplomat whose work had significant international implications. He fostered international cooperation through collaborations with scientists and scholars in the countries he visited and established political connections and exchanged knowledge across borders. Humboldt’s insights profoundly influenced political decisions related to trade, agriculture, and environmental conservation and his work embodies current definitions of science diplomacy, such as that of Nina V. Federoff, former Science and Technology Advisor to the US Secretary of State:

Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address the common problems facing […] humanity and to build constructive international partnerships.

Today, science diplomacy is more important than ever. Our societies face challenges that affect everyone on the planet—global warming, public health, and international security, to name just a few. At the same time, rhetoric—and policies—on de-globalization, re-nationalization, and de-coupling have entered the political and societal mainstreams. Such “de-s” and “re-s” are poison for scientific progress. After all, climate change does not stop at the border between a democracy and an autocracy, and viruses do not care about the political views of their hosts. If we want to tackle global challenges, we cannot afford to think and act in regional spheres.

Our world needs leaders who drive scientific exchange and research collaboration across borders, and across sectors, be they in academia, the private sector or non-profit sphere, or the public or philanthropic sectors. We need science diplomats, and we have many in our global network—30,000 Humboldtians. When it comes to science diplomacy, Humboldtians have been there, done that. In addition to being experts in their relevant fields, they all are experienced practitioners of international exchange and collaboration.

The mission of American Friends of AvH is to cultivate the network within the network, that is, the community of US-based Humboldtians. We aim to engage these almost 6,000 brilliant minds and influential voices as much as possible. The list of our activities since the beginning of this year keeps growing. We have engaged on topics such as AI, diversity, equity, and inclusion, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the future of US-Chinese science and research exchange, cancer research, and so on. Our approach is always transatlantic, our perspective is always global.

We are also building strategic partnerships with other like-minded organizations to further elevate our brand recognition and impact on both sides of the Atlantic. Since I began outreach efforts around the United States, we have received substantial interest from potential partners. This is largely due to the fact that we bring a great asset to any partnership—our network of almost 6,000 Humboldtians. This is a network that extends across the United States–beyond the beltway, between the coasts, from the North to the South.

American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation aspires to be a driving force in international science and research exchange and collaboration. To achieve this, we rely on our Humboldtians as experts, speakers, co-developers, advisors, and partners—and as science diplomats.

Please get in touch if you would like to work with us in tackling the most urgent global challenges of today. We look forward to sharing more about our upcoming programs and initiatives. Exciting things are on the horizon, such as programs on sustainable AI, neuroscience and robotics, historical memory in international relations, fake news and deteriorating trust in science, and more. Next spring, we plan to co-shape the Johns Hopkins University Science Diplomacy Summit 2024 in Washington, DC. We invite you to collaborate with us on that, and on all our other programs. Because the time for science diplomacy is now. And this is the time for US Humboldtians to shine.

Alexander von Humboldt as an Early Advocate of Science Diplomacy

My name is Sandra Rebok. I am a historian and began my career with my research on Alexander von Humboldt almost 30 years ago. My long experience in Humboldtian scholarship started as a student in Paris; from there I followed Humboldt’s path to Madrid, while drawing my attention to his ties to Spain. This research then took me to many of the places Humboldt himself visited on his American expedition (1799-1804), from the Canary Islands to Washington and Philadelphia, where he ended his five-year expedition, and where the focus of my work now turned to his connection to the young republic of the United States, and its third President, Thomas Jefferson, in particular. During all these years I have been fascinated by Humboldt’s thoughtful, balanced, and knowledgeable analysis of the different worlds he experienced, even if this included a critical eye, based on both his own observations and the readings of the work of others. It is his ability to describe the causes and consequences of the situations he observed in a rather scientific manner, beyond dogmata or the ideological currents of his time, and to foresee future developments, along with recommendations know how to promote or else mitigate them. Currently, I continue my research in California—the place where Humboldt never actually happened to set foot on, although he expressed this desire to do so from the very beginning of his expedition.

Today, however, our approaches to Humboldt do not seem to always follow his own example—they sometimes relate more to what we want to see in the famous Prussian. A rather delicate topic where this can be observed is Humboldt’s nearness to political circles, which has indeed led to an array of criticism and misinterpretations: while some saw him as ideological leader of the independence movement in Spanish America, others took him as being yet another colonial explorer; while some interpretations saw in him an agent for the Spanish Crown, others criticize him for acting as a spy for Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. If we like to better understand the ways he navigated through the rough seas of diplomacy and strategy though, it might be helpful to look at it through the lenses of science diplomacy, a concept that recently is getting much attention: Humboldt knew that he needed to go beyond discussions within scholarly circles, if he sought to turn his science into applicable knowledge and connect with the needs of society. To this aim he had to reach out to the political power and further scientific and technological progress through a skillful connection of both worlds. And vice versa, Humboldt needed to be willing to advance diplomatic objectives through the universal world of science. In doing so he served as a science adviser for foreign policy objectives to the Prussian crown, he actively established contact with politicians to facilitate international scientific cooperation and create large-scale science projects. In other words, Humboldt was in a position to passionately make things happen, by connecting people, ideas, and nations.

With his outstanding social skills, Humboldt was indeed the ideal science diplomat: he was frequently described as extremely charismatic, a blessed character with great charm. He tended to be at the center of all social gatherings he attended, where he entertained other guests with his wealth of knowledge and his farsighted analysis. This is where he was at his best: as a catalyst for developments, as a source of inspiration or model to follow for others, and in a position that connected the concerns of different worlds. This is a point where he can serve as a source of inspiration for us today.

“SDG Halftime Report”: We Must Double Down on Teamwork or Risk Losing the Global Challenge

On January 1, 2016, something extraordinary happened: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force. The whole world had agreed on seventeen goals for all–ranging from No Poverty and Climate Action to Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Some found these goals too ambitious; for others, the goals were not ambitious enough. However, the whole world committed to them and that in itself was remarkable.

The United Nations also agreed on 2030 as the deadline for achieving all seventeen goals. Now in spring 2023, we find ourselves in the second half of the SDG challenge and it does not look like we are winning. No country is on track to achieve the ambitious goals set in 2016. A global pandemic and rising geopolitical tensions have blocked progress, re-set political priorities, and messed up the game plan—if there ever was one.

Have we failed to rise to the challenge? It’s too early to tell. We still have almost seven years left to turn things around. Key indicators across the board (carbon emissions, income gaps, new military conflicts, among others) show that we are lagging behind our ambitions. If this were a game of American football, we would be behind by more than just a field goal. We need to pick up the pace and adjust our strategy.

Every organization buying into the SDGs has to take stock and review: Where are we only “talking the talk?” And where do we need to do more of “walking the walk?” This is also true for American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. As an organization, we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt—and those are enormous shoes to fill. Indeed, Humboldt would have had the perfect mindset for achieving a comprehensive and varied set of goals like the SDGs. He did not believe in borders—neither between disciplines, nor between cultures. He recognized and uncovered the complex interdependencies of the world and drew pragmatic conclusions. Such a cross-disciplinary and holistic mindset would be very helpful in tackling the SDGs and operationalizing them in the form of impactful actions.

To stay with the SDG game metaphor, American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is a tiny player on a huge global field. We are a small organization but what we do have is a large network of almost 6,000 American Humboldtians. These Humboldtians are alumni of the foundation’s various fellowship programs that have been in place since 1953. They comprise almost 6,000 brilliant minds and influential voices in their respective fields—from science and public policy to the social sciences and humanities—with the additional benefit of an international mindset. Together with our Humboldtians, American Friends of AvH aims to create tangible impact when it comes to tackling the pressing issues our world is facing. Together with the members of the US Humboldt alumni network, we want to contribute as much as we possibly can to achieving the SDGs.

Early into the second half of the SDG challenge, we need to review and adjust our strategy and not remain confined in our cozy science bubble. We have to reach out—across sectors, and across cultural, political, and societal boundaries—just like Alexander von Humboldt did two hundred years ago.

Our main asset is our network of Humboldtians and our expertise is platform building. We know how to connect organizations and people to work toward common goals. Now we wish to create new platforms with new partners. Our deepest connections traditionally have been with the science community and the next logical step is to partner with actors in other sectors as well, such as philanthropies and private-sector companies. Such partnerships will allow us to pool resources and increase impact in the spirit of SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals. To start, we need to identify the things we have in common with foundations and businesses, and there is likely to be plenty of common ground. One important effect of the SDGs is their unifying effect on different players. After all, the goal of making the world a better place transcends sectors and industries.

Reaching out across sectors is the right approach for generating sustainable impact. For American Friends of AvH, as a platform-builder with an excellent network, it has the potential to create new and exciting platforms and synergies. Current economic and societal trends are working in our favor. Sustainability (either as defined in the SDGs or with ESG criteria) is playing an ever more important role for companies—global corporations and SMEs alike. Investors and consumers increasingly make their decisions dependent on how a company is not only “talking the talk,” but also “walking the walk” on sustainability. Good corporate citizenship is key to good business, and corporate citizenship needs platforms that showcase concrete, authentic, and impactful sustainability efforts. American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation stands ready to both provide and co-develop these platforms together with our partners. These can take the shape of dialogues, exchange initiatives, workshops, studies, and public outreach events. American Friends of AvH has the experience, the creativity, and the network to make it happen.

We invite everyone who shares our vision to pool resources with us and co-create impactful platforms and initiatives for solving issues ranging from affordable and clean energy and gender equality to quality education. Let’s join forces and double down on our efforts to make the second half of the SDG challenge a success and, by extension, make the world a better place.

Chancellor Scholz Embarks on a Zeitenwende: Germany Breaks with the Past

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had been in office just short of three months when he called for a fundamental shift in German foreign and security policy, a change that would move Germany away from its post-World War II pacifistic leanings. This Zeitenwende* was prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Germany adopting a more realistic approach to the Russian threat, reinforcing its allied institutions and relationships, and reconstructing the Bundeswehr to meet the new threats to the democratic order in Ukraine and Europe.

The ramifications of the Zeitenwende are substantial and move Germany away from the “structural pacifism” that had been a key component of German political culture—in its approach to military decisions, political positions, and budget/economic allocation across traditional parties. Pacifism permeated German society until the pivotal 1994 major decision by the Karlsruhe Constitutional Court to lift the German interpretation on the use the armed forces beyond NATO boundaries. The first conflict outside of NATO Europe that Germany participated in was when Tornados flew in support of Kosovo independence. The Green Party, in particular Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, made this possible by declaring that a lesson from World War II is not “Nie wieder Krieg” but “Nie wieder Auschwitz.” [Not “never again war,” but “never again Auschwitz.”] In 2003 Germany stepped outside European territorial borders for the first time and joined the international coalition in Afghanistan in the War on Terror against the al-Qaeda terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and caused a third plane to crash in Pennsylvania. With annual Parliamentary approval, the German Bundeswehr remained in Afghanistan throughout the conflict and until 2015 when coalition forces assumed an advisory role. Those forces remained even as many others departed until the mass evacuation of all remaining forces began in August 2021.

This is not to ignore earlier shifts at official levels. For example, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 signaled a turn in official attitudes toward Putin. German President Joachim Gauck and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen gave speeches at the Munich Security Conference calling for Germany to assume greater responsibility internationally. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier reached out domestically using the web to reach the younger generations and broad public. Although Chancellor Merkel did not publicly echo their remarks, the general tenor of official sentiment had begun to shift, albeit often unexpectedly. While participating in Afghanistan, Germany did not participate with the US force in Iraq in 2003 or in NATO’s operation in Libya 2011.

The Zeitenwende represents a number of challenges for Germany—three of the most pressing are global, regional, and operational. Whether Scholz would have given his February speech to the Bundestag without Putin’s invasion of Ukraine three days earlier is debatable, but the speech was crystal clear—Germany would support Ukraine and those NATO members and allies in defending against an invasion. There was no question about his conviction that the attack by Russia on Ukraine required Germany to reconfigure its relations with Russia, particularly in the energy sector, where the Germans were in danger of becoming energy dependent on the Nord Stream pipelines, including after the Nord Stream 1 “repair” that began in mid-July. In spite of many who insisted that Nord Stream 1 might not even resume deliveries thereafter, it did so, albeit at only 40% and at this point has dropped to a mere 20% of past capacity. As of this writing, it remains highly unlikely also that Nord Stream 2 will even be activated. The public debate over the impact for the coming German winter has been considerable across family dinner tables and has even grown fierce among experts and professionals over the expected economic costs by winter. Only days after Nord Stream 1 reopened, Russia’s Gazprom announced the need for additional technical repairs to one or more turbines.

A Black Sea grain agreement, negotiated in Istanbul by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with the assistance of Turkey, appeared to offer relief from the Russian Black Sea blockade on shipments of globally needed Ukrainian grain, particularly to regions in the Middle East and Africa. The agreement appeared to be a successful step forward in reversing dwindling grain supplies. But unexpectedly thereafter, Odesa was presumably hit with Russian missiles, an action indicating the difficulties of dealing with Russia. In this time frame, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined President Putin and others in underlining Russian intentions to annex larger areas in the war. Germany is now resolved to wean itself off Russian gas/energy resources, enforce existing sanctions, ban many Russian natural resources and steel trade, and even take sharp measures that could impact populations, not only in Germany but around the globe.

Second, while former finance minister Scholz’s demeanor is typically cautious—often raising criticism from the German and European publics—his decisions and follow-up have become significant in German contributions to Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Germany is solidly behind the NATO decision not to introduce troops on the ground given the chance of heightening the conflict with Russia. Furthermore, the Chancellor has made clear the importance of assisting the NATO alliance in its efforts to halt Russian attacks and reassure Ukraine of allied unity with equipment and funding assistance. In addition, Scholz joined the French, Italian, and Romanian heads of state to support Ukrainian (and Moldovan) candidacy for EU membership. This would begin the EU accession process and subsequent long-term benefits that come with membership. Most recently, at the conclusion of the G7 summit in southern Germany, host Olaf Scholz announced plans for the group to explore with the European Commission a future Marshall Plan similar to the successful plan provided to Germany after World War II, a move that could unify international as well as European institutions after the conflict.

In a third shift, the increasingly poor quality of the Bundeswehr has underscored a growing threat to Germany’s ability to defend itself and its allies if attacked (NATO, Article 5). As the conflict in Ukraine has intensified a sense of threat from the East, Scholz has—despite being seen to be slow to act, but determined—fulfilled his promises to Ukraine. As Russia has moved into the Donbas and Odesa regions (potentially even broaching Moldova), threatened nuclear use, and strengthened Russian forces on the ground and in the Black Sea, the Chancellor asserted that the military equipment Germany is sending would be able to “to protect an entire major city from Russian air attacks.” 

In accordance with this newly announced Zeitenwende for Germany, Scholz has pledged Euro 100B ($106B—in the form of a special investment fund specifically for a modernization of the Bundeswehr) and will now meet the NATO 2014 summit pledge in Wales of a 2% or higher percent of GDP allocated to defense spending. The short-term financial consequences have raised sharp public debate over moving from light to “heavy” weapons and equipment, including 15+ million rounds of ammunition, 100,000 grenades, and over 5,000 anti-tank mines. Initial Panzerhaubitze 2000 (“heavy” equipment) arrived the end of June, as Germany announced it would supply Ukraine with IRIS-T air defense systems as well as tracking radar that can detect mortars and Howitzers. The latter have proven highly lethal to Ukrainian civilians as well as the military. HIMARS—High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems—are planned by German defense for Ukraine to reinforce these earlier deliveries. On July 18, Germany delivered the first three Gepard (“Cheetah”) anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine—three months after they were promised—and was encouraged to accelerate future deliveries despite worries about Putin’s reaction. Scholz was criticized for the long delay. At its recent summit, the Alliance expanded the NATO Response Force (NRF) from 40,000 to 300,000, to which the Bundeswehr will contribute 15,000 (with 3-5000 German troops stationed in Lithuania). These force increases are expected to be difficult to raise and train in the necessary time frame, not to mention equipping the expanded force to meet the even short-term, not to mention long-term needs.

In sum, over the past five months, Chancellor Scholz has demonstrated the gradual, but new direction on which he has embarked. His efforts not only reflect a dramatic shift in German-Russian security, economic, and political relations, but they also have potential impact on the stability of democratic regimes in Europe and beyond. The challenge will be substantial, but as he commented in his Bundestag speech held in special session last February: “We will have to invest more in the security of our country to protect our freedom and democracy. This is a major national undertaking.” 

* Zeitenwende has been variously translated as “watershed,” “historical turning point,” and numerous other terms in the literature.

 Gale A. Mattox is a member of the Board of Directors of American Friends of AvH and directs the Foreign & Security Policy Program at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. This essay does not reflect the views of any governmental or organizational affiliation held by the author.

Undergraduate Research: Preparing Future Leaders

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is known for its generous support for research, undertaken by scholars at the very pinnacle of their disciplines, at top universities and research institutes across the globe. Such research has led to treatments for deadly diseases, methods to address climate change, policies to combat social inequality, as well as interventions in many other acute problems facing humanity. Research at this level is of great value to society, and the Foundation’s resources are wisely spent. But it is also worth stepping back to think about the value of research conducted at the lowest levels of the university hierarchy: undergraduate research.

At Amherst College, where I serve as Provost and Dean of the Faculty, promoting undergraduate research is one of our top priorities. Amherst College, one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the United States, enrolls approximately 1850 undergraduates. We do not have graduate students. We have almost no post- doctoral researchers (a few science professors use external funding to hire post- docs), and only a very few lab or other technicians. Put otherwise, there is virtually none of the personnel associated with big science or other teams working on large- scale, cutting-edge research questions. Similarly, with one small exception, the college has no research centers focused on social policy or area studies characteristic of research universities. And yet we invest millions of dollars every year into funding undergraduate research opportunities. Moreover, many faculty members devote considerable time to mentoring research students. Why, you might ask, is an undergraduate institution providing so many resources to research experiences for its students?

While pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is an excellent educational ideal, most research on campus has more practical purposes. Undergraduate research supports professors’ projects; many of the papers published by our science faculty include student co-authors. Similarly, faculty-led undergraduate research in the humanities and social sciences has resulted in co-authored books and articles published in peer-reviewed venues. The college also provides funding to small numbers of recent graduates so that they can revise their senior honors work for submission to scholarly publications. For students planning to pursue an academic career, research experiences—especially peer-reviewed scholarly publications—are invaluable in the graduate school application process. Moreover, two decades ago, the chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Thomas R. Cech showed that the research training received at liberal arts colleges led to an overrepresentation of such students in the ranks of research scientists. These are all terrific outcomes for students doing undergraduate research. But they are not the primary reason for why we focus so heavily on supporting it.

Instead, we believe that research experience offers unparalleled educational benefits: skills developed in the research process are precisely those skills that will benefit students in any line of work. Research begins with identifying a worthy problem. There are so many topics than can be researched, but why is one issue more important, more pressing than another? How does one know why one research project is more important than another? Researchers must be discerning— and then must be persuasive about why their topics should be addressed.

Research also involves posing open-ended questions. A good research problem has no potted or clear-cut “right” answer. Student researchers, like their older counterparts, can easily find themselves pursuing lines of inquiry that turn out to be dead ends. When that happens, they must come up with alternative paths of inquiry; this process takes grit, determination, patience, and creativity. Research also often fosters interdisciplinary thinking. Good researchers do not place boundaries on inquiry; drawing from different perspectives may illuminate a problem in ways not seen previously. Research fosters flexible, critical thinking skills, as well as personal qualities needed for problem solving.

Beyond critical thinking, student researchers hone their presentation skills. Like more seasoned researchers, undergraduates in every discipline have to write about what they find precisely and persuasively, and often even eloquently. At Amherst College, research students are trained in public speaking so that they can orally present their research findings at student conferences or poster sessions. Students also learn to present their research in visually attractive ways; they thus learn computer design and other visual tools so that their research can better capture an audience’s attention.

Research may involve working in teams. While this is particularly true in the sciences, at Amherst we have had student research teams in the humanities and social science disciplines. Ideally, those teams are a heterogeneous group with regard to identities—race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on. In science labs, students across class years also work together; more advanced students train younger students in lab techniques. It is often said that the best, most productive teams involve individuals with different identities who thus each bring different lenses to a problem. Listening, understanding, and questioning respectfully are skills that must be learned. So, too, is negotiation around who will do what for the team. In our world, students who have developed the skills of working across differences will be that much more valuable in the workplace.

There are a number of other, less tangible but exceedingly important benefits of undergraduate student research. The literature on student success in college suggests the importance of “belonging,” especially for low-income, first-generation, or otherwise often marginalized communities of students. Even one strong relationship with a faculty or staff member can have an immeasurable impact on their success in college. How better to foster this result than to have students working directly with a faculty member on research, the heart of the academic mission? Similarly, forging friendships with other students greatly improves the college experience. Friendships developed during shared research experiences— just as those that occur through participation in sports teams or volunteer activities —often endure. Indeed, bonding over shared intellectual passions provides a strong basis for continuing friendship, especially in cases when there are otherwise overt identity differences.

And finally, when students do research, they own it. No one else knows the subject as they do, no one else can speak about it the way they can. Engaging in research makes students “experts.” The confidence and self-knowledge gained from achieving this is often palpable; students mature through the research process. That, in turn, leads to all sorts of benefits, not the least of which is that students always have a ready-made topic for conversation or for a job interview. “So tell me,” the interviewer asks, “about this research that you have listed on your CV….”

Faculty and others who are in a position to offer undergraduate research opportunities should consider how they can strengthen those experiences. You might assign a research project in a regular undergraduate course, or offer a research methods course. You might encourage senior thesis writing. Hire undergraduates—or more undergraduates—to work in your lab or join your research team. Work with your administration to create cohort-based programs that prepare students for research. Advocate for more funding for research opportunities, not least by offering to speak with donors about the importance of undergraduate research.

Most of all, we should all take pride in leading efforts to support undergraduate research. No doubt it has its challenges—it demands a special kind of teaching and commitment. But its rewards are great. By investing in undergraduate research we are strengthening the capacity of the next generation to be effective problem solvers in society.

Healthcare and Scientific Expertise in the Era of Covid

As a practicing academic physician at a tertiary care medical center in Northern California, I have directly experienced the changes and challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to healthcare and to scientific discourse. Few people in medicine ever thought that the world would again face a global pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu. We were taught and believed that the last great “plague” was a disease of the past, before the age of antibiotics and anti-viral agents, ventilators, and advanced healthcare. However, we did not consider the possibility of a novel viral agent running amok across the world.

Would Covid-19 be as deadly as SARS1? Do we have enough equipment and bed capacity? Fear permeated our mindset. When my local area was the first in the United States to go into lockdown in March 2020, the science behind our decisions was incomplete. As my hospital began to navigate the unknown of healthcare delivery with an undetectable, highly infectious agent spreading throughout the community, we began to approach our clinical responsibilities with a different mindset, rules, and approach to patient care (e.g., personal protective equipment, diligent cleaning, and handwashing).

Our experience was not unique, as hospitals in many countries implemented similar changes to healthcare policies. Then we watched in disbelief as hospitals were overrun by Covid in Seattle, New York, and Italy and wondered if we were next. But the horror of those images were nothing compared to the shock that would come over the ensuing 18 months. Despite the development of rapid testing (so we could at least know if our patients were infected) and new therapies (e.g., convalescent plasma and monoclonal antibodies), we all awaited the creation of vaccines. As we in healthcare knew, masking and social distancing would only hold back the virus for so long.

Thankfully, multiple vaccines were developed, tested, and approved with record speed. Our prayers were answered, or so we thought. However, we watched a new horror show, the politicization of healthcare over vaccines and masks, the rise of anti-science sentiment, and the selfishness of individuals. Healthcare workers across the world were called heroes for selflessly facing the virus early in its course, but now we have been asked to continue to work in a world of variant viruses, to care for those who will not take the simple steps to get the vaccine or at least mask up. We are beyond exhausted and yet we must continue watching as Covid takes over more hospitals, leading to rationing and, in some cases, denial of care for non-Covid patients.

Within the US, the pandemic has led to the early retirement of nurses in large numbers and movement of nurses to other hospitals seeking better pay, thus further limiting patient care. I am sure similar changes to the workforce have occurred globally, or have they? The great differences among states for salary and nurse–patient staffing ratios has started a much-needed conversation about these issues and a demand for national standards. I am curious if such discussions are occurring in other countries with socialized healthcare systems.

A shortage of nurses and doctors in the United States was already predicted, but the pandemic has hastened the process. Within the United States, medical licensing is done at the state level, limiting movement of personnel. Despite similar training for doctors and nurses across the globe, acceptance of foreign graduates in the United States is hampered by arcane rules. If we are to fight more global pandemics in the future, movement of trained professionals between countries should be a priority for discussion between countries and may be necessary to ensure that we have adequate levels of healthcare staff.

Equally concerning has been the rise of anti-science and anti-intellectualism, even among our most educated. The inability of the general population to utilize critical thinking skills to assess data is not due to a lack of science education, but to a lack of teaching of those skills. Everyone is not an expert in everything, and the lack of trust in true expert opinion has only prolonged the pandemic for everyone. Social media has played a disproportionate role in creating the current situation. Healthcare workers have gone from being heroes to being pariahs in many communities and states for simply speaking truth about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines.

Despite what may appear to be a gloomy outlook, I believe that we will rise above the pandemic. Scientists, nurses, and physicians will continue to work under challenging conditions to improve patient care and find new treatments. But we need to consider why we are where we are, and what steps we need to take now so that we don’t repeat them again. It is now time to discuss increasing, not decreasing, scientific and medical cooperation between countries. More importantly, we need to address the lack of critical thinking skills among our populations and maybe change our educational system in the process.

Cooperation between countries is crucial for being prepared for any crisis and it is for this reason that I am involved with the Humboldt Network. I look forward to our future engagement and conversations.

Timothy Angelotti, AFAvH Board member

Emerging from COVID … the Impact on Networks

The International Association for the Study of German Politics (IASGP) is an association devoted to the academic study of the politics, economics, international relations, and society of contemporary Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Its origins lie in a decade-old merger of two nationally-based associations: the UK’s Association for the Study of German Politics and the US-based Conference Group on German Politics. The highlight of the IASGP’s activities takes place every four years, when the Association organizes an election study trip to Berlin; its members from the United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere around the world come together to observe the German federal elections and meet with politicians, pollsters, and other experts. In the intervening years, however, the UK- and US-based members have had few interactions. The IASGP’s annual conference is usually held in the United Kingdom and is attended primarily by scholars located in Europe, while the American members often meet up at conferences held in the United States, such as the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an impetus for the IASGP to become a truly international association with regular interactions among its members living across the globe. During the spring 2020 lockdown, members joined Zoom socials to chat among themselves, both about developments in German politics and to discuss the lockdown’s impact on professional activities. Graduate students in the field expressed concern for their professional futures given the expected economic slowdown. These worries spurred more senior faculty in the field to consider what could be done to assist in younger IASGP members’ professional development. The outcome of this conversation was an online graduate student conference sponsored by the IASGP in early December 2020. It featured discussions on topics of relevance—including a session on how to obtain research funding, led by a German professor; a discussion of how to successfully apply for jobs, led by a UK-based Pro-Vice-Chancellor; and a talk about effective strategies for developing an article for publication. I, a US-based faculty member, led the latter session in my capacity as co-editor of the IASGP’s journal German Politics. The conference was attended by students from a range of different institutions who would have been unlikely to come together if not for the increased use of videoconferencing technology.

The pandemic also spurred an increase in transatlantic cooperation between the IASGP and Washington, DC’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS). This spring, the two groups have partnered to offer a series of webinars and on-line articles about the 2021 German National election. Speakers in the series have included scholarly experts in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany discussing the upcoming contest with German politicians. Even though travel across the Atlantic has been impossible for many, the series has allowed both academics and members of the general public to keep up with political developments in the Federal Republic. I have enjoyed watching the webinars while at the same time being able to live chat with colleagues from around the world about German politics. Prior to the emergence of the coronavirus, such informal conversations would have likely only taken place in September, when I gathered in person in Berlin with my fellow German politics scholars. 

One silver lining of the pandemic, then, has been an increase in the routine exchange of ideas among academics across borders. Our “international” association is now more fully living up to its name.

Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, AFAvH Board member

The Humboldt Network—For the Non-Academic

As a practicing engineer, my professional life is global. Every project I am involved with can only be achieved with engagement from people around the world. The ideas that form the scientific foundation of the work we do is ageless and developed with input from every corner of our collective human understanding. The material we use to build is sourced from many different countries. The engineers, contractors, and laborers who realize the new constructions, repairs, or responses similarly hail from everywhere—and very seldomly from the same place.

Similarly, as an engineer that responds to catastrophes, I see every day that gravity is non-negotiable. Science is the basis for all the things we take for granted. We take for granted that our buildings withstand storms and protect us from the elements every day. The I-35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis a decade ago was so shocking because we have done such a good job of managing risk and building a robust infrastructure. The ever-delayed infrastructure work notwithstanding, major bridge collapses are almost unthinkable.

So during this time, when it feels like we are restarting, we must work to reinforce and recapture the concept of facts, rigorous experimentation, and robust predictions of the future. 

Gravity goes down everywhere on earth—and on other planets the appropriate pull of gravity can be quantified. We are all in this together. There are constants and laws of physics and chemistry that are reliable. I enjoy standing on these hard spots and reaching toward new findings and new developments—and often this kind of reach works better when I am holding the hand of someone across the Atlantic. In the most mundane example, when we have a new challenge, we often look to European codes or others to find a solution to a problem that we did not know we had. We are constantly learning from one another how to make construction safer, more sustainable, and more robust by learning from and collaborating with our partners overseas.

As the daughter of Germanic literature professors, I appreciate that innovating without context feels soulless. Where the scientists and engineers may give us a how, the humanities give us the why. Knowing why we are working together, the common values and vision that we are all working toward more understanding, peace, safety, beauty, and community helps us focus, evaluate, and ultimately achieve technical outcomes and inventions that are not just novel but fundamentally make society better.

I am involved in the Humboldt Network because I am so grateful to be able to have interactions with people like you—thoughtful experts who welcome viewpoints outside their own. I look forward to the conversations to come.

Elisabeth Malsch, AFAvH Board member

It’s Time to Enhance the Diversity of the US Humboldt Network—for Science and Society

2020 has been an extraordinary year. Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, severe economic distress, and devastating natural disasters, protests calling for racial justice have spread to communities around the world. In the scientific and scholarly community, institutions are challenged to confront their histories and practices, and to identify meaningful actions to illuminate racism’s legacy and remove impediments to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our respective societies and globally. 

As concerned citizens of various nations and scholars of all disciplines, the members of the global Humboldt alumni network, working together, have tremendous potential to address not only exclusionary beliefs and practices in scholarship and international exchange, but also other critical issues at home and across borders. We, as a community, must be prepared, in these turbulent times, to actively bring to bear important and varied perspectives on scholarship and the societal challenges that lie before us.

We can begin with an honest examination of our own scholarly communities. We must also nurture and tend to our own connections, while taking nothing for granted and leaving no assumption unchallenged. 

With over 30,000 alumni in more than 140 countries, the diversity of the world-wide network of Humboldtians is realized through its global reach. Yet, if we focus only on global diversity and demographics, we ignore the factors that, unacknowledged and unseen, have shaped the national scientific enterprises that we draw on to recruit fellows and awardees. With over 5,400 members spread across more than 448 academic, non- and for-profit, and governmental organizations in the United States, the US network includes all disciplines and many professions and is geographically dispersed. But is our network truly inclusive of the best scholarly and professional talent across US society? If not, what can we do, as US Humboldtians and as a network? 

The US Humboldt alumni network, and the US context, are partial but important elements of the broader global Humboldt network. As a partner of both the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and US alumni, the Board of American Friends of AvH therefore has proffered its commitment to encourage and support Black Americans and others from groups underrepresented in the US Humboldt ranks to apply to and participate in the Humboldt Foundation’s exchange and mobility programs. In order to create a more inclusive and equitable organization and US alumni network, the AFAvH Board drafted and adopted a pair of statements expressing our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and to action for Black lives and racial equity in international science, scholarship, and professional practice.

As a first step, American Friends of AvH is compelled to better understand the US Humboldt alumni network, the communal value of the Humboldt experience, and what connects us. Through our conversations with alumni over the last three years, we have learned about the contributions and experiences of individual Humboldtians. We have confirmed that Humboldtians take diverse career paths and that many sustain strong professional and personal connections to Germany. Many also regard their Humboldt experience as transformative, opening their minds to new ways of seeing the world and new approaches to research. 

We must also critically examine our outreach and communications strategies so that we recruit inclusively and equitably within the communities on which we draw. Does our outreach overlook or exclude individual scholars, scientists, or professionals of excellence because of the way that “excellence” is defined, measured, acknowledged, and rewarded? How do we reach out to talented scientists, scholars, and young professionals underrepresented within the Humboldt network and those without previous ties to Germany? How can we demonstrate the relevance of AvH programs to their area of scholarship or professional activity, and convincingly convey that the Humboldt experience can provide valuable perspectives, experiences, contacts, and resources that will take their work in new directions?

A more diverse community engaged in global exchange will not only better reflect the composition of US society, but will also help to produce better and more relevant science and scholarship for society. As we have learned from US alumni, Humboldt programs create opportunities for connection, learning, enrichment, and exploration of shared problems. International perspectives and connectedness may also shine new light on national contexts of common experience, shared values, and mutual benefit. Such experiences may also compel us to think mindfully about the ways in which we are connected to others, when shared values, concerns, and interests may be obscured by distance, race, gender, age group, sexuality, profession, and nationality. Unpacking and disentangling these interconnections is often challenging and finding common motivation is needed to build new knowledge and bridges.

Deep diversity in the US and global Humboldt networks could also help sustain international collaboration. The global Humboldt network connects generations and diverse disciplines and sectors of society across 140 countries. Humboldtians’ experiences build connections between experts who instinctively appreciate the value of international collaboration, mutual understanding, and empathy. As world demographics shift, the fruitful transatlantic and global relationships seeded by the Humboldt Foundation could sustain opportunities to build and share collective knowledge that enhances global knowledge and conveys more equal benefit to the individuals who make up and contribute to American (and other) society(ies).

To encourage and nurture such relationships , American Friends of AvH is excited to announce a new Digital Dialogues series that will explore diversity and excellence and delve into issues of racism and scholarship. The series will also highlight the research and experiences of Humboldtians of color and will feature opportunities available through Humboldt programs and networks. 

To be certain, we are deeply indebted to the AvH for bringing us all together. However, we, as US Humboldtians, have individual and collective responsibilities to reflect honestly on our shared scientific norms, practices, and priorities. Only then, and while nurturing and tending to our Humboldt connections through our own agency, can we determine what unites us and realize our potential in a world of complex global challenges. 

We look forward to your joining us!

Andrea Stith, AFAvH Board member and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force chair