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Change by Exchange
July 5, 2011 - 8:30pm

As the US basks in the afterglow of July 4th fireworks, NASA counts down to its final shuttle launch, and the budget battle consumes Congress, I submit a last-minute plea to save global research and education from the chopping block. Independence need not mean isolation. Indeed, independence demands knowledge of the world for its survival.

“Change by Exchange” (Wandel durch Austausch) is the apt motto of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst or DAAD). I just returned from a week long expedition into “Germany Today” with a group of 19 institutional leaders from universities and funding agencies across the US and Canada. This mini-fellowship program allows Associate Provosts for Research and International Affairs, representatives of funding agencies, State Senators, and more to apprise themselves of what the ‘cutting edge’ looks like at German institutions of research and higher learning. As one of my provostly fellow travelers put it, “they are going to kick our @$$.”

Those who know of the DAAD likely think the motto means the simple dispatch of students to and fro over the Atlantic. The captain of the Titanic thought he need only maneuver around a little lump of ice. As we rode down well-maintained autobahns filled with trucks transporting German manufactures to and fro, the conversation centered on why Germans learn with and from 177* funded research centers while the US struggles to fund a mere 21 national laboratories.

As in the US, German states fund universities; while the federal government fuels the research centers. To milk the cash cow, academics must go into the research institutes’ fertile federal fields. Germans integrate their research institutions into the market and knowledge economies, because their federal government facilitates the process - what a philosopher would call “positive liberty.”

American professors dream of spin-off companies and stock options. Universities sweat over conflicts of interests and draw lines in the sand between corruption and the common good - “negative liberty” made law. My colleagues from funding agencies swooned over facilities, but fretted over the whose “intellectual property” their products would become. The politician among us feared his constituents could not overcome the American assumption that ‘good governance’ defines oxymoron.

As I flew home (coach) in an impressively appointed Lufthansa Airbus 380, I wondered whether any of the innovations around me emerged from one of the 80 Fraunhofer institutes dedicated to translating basic scientific research into technology for real life. The comparison between the gleaming Germany carrier on which smiling staff plied me with free wine and my earlier arrival on one of United’s dilapidated cattle cars underscored my colleague’s painful prediction for our collective posterior.

Germany and the EU pour millions of Euro into programs to guarantee that their best and brightest study in countries and languages other than their own. The US starts at a tremendous advantage. We are a nation of immigrants. In Chicago, merely walk a few steps down Devon Avenue and you move from South Asian to Slavic communities. The world comes to us and provides a window on what we might find outside our own borders. The immigrants among us should invite not inhibit our ventures around the globe. While Berlin and Brussels fund the exchange of people and ideas, the US has eliminated major funding sources** for study overseas in the last year.

Hubris is a horrible thing. Ask the Greeks. Americans apparently think have nothing to learn from others. We don’t learn their languages and suspect those few who do of lax loyalty. In response to economic crisis, we bailed out bombastic bankers but let future innovators drown. At a time when we need new ideas from wherever and whomever might have them, we instead build walls along our borders and dig ourselves into a deeper, jingoistic hole.

Our cash-poor country expects the best and brightest to stay home and hope the world comes to them. We need The Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering in Carl Zeiss’ home city of Jena to create new glasses capable of overcoming our myopic vision. The eyes of Fitzgerald’s Dr. T.J. Eckleburg squint down upon us. Exchange his lenses, broaden his vision, and change our future.

*80 Max Planck, 17 Helmholtz, 80 Fraunhofer.
** The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship may no longer be used outside the US and the Department of Education ended the Fulbright-Hays DDRA program.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor to the University of Venus and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University. She earned M.Litt. and M.Phil. degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her doctorate in American History at Princeton University. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.wordpress.com.

 

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