Prior to and immediately following the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I was fortunate to tour several cities in Germany and learn about their unique culture and appreciation for education and research. Here are some of my key takeaways and highlights.
Importance of education and research
Personally, I believe that education should be a right, not a privilege, though how this should be economically modelled and implemented is up for debate.
Since 2014, Germany became one of a handful of countries to provide tuition-free education at most public universities. Although small administrative fees can still apply (usually < $300 Euros per semester), this is still a far cry from average student loan debts in countries like the USA and Australia. For example, in the USA, the average student loan debt for an undergraduate degree at a public university is > $30,000 USD. In Australia, the average student loan debt for higher education is > $23,000 AUD.
Whilst the idea of tuition-free higher education remains divided amongst German taxpayers and critics, one thing is for sure – Germany takes education seriously.
In tandem with the appreciation of education is the nation’s investment in research and development (R&D) and a pragmatic approach to innovation. To put this into perspective, Germany spends > 3% of its gross domestic spending on R&D, nearly twice as much as Australia. This means that naturally, the funding success rate for government research grants is nearly double in Germany compared to Australia. Simultaneously, founder-friendly programs such as EXIST encourage entrepreneurship and generously support graduates who are interested in commercialising university-based research.
So what does it all mean? In my personal experience from touring a number of German universities (e.g. Humboldt University, Technical University Berlin, University of Stuttgart) and research institutions (e.g. Fritz-Haber Institute and ZSW Baden-Wurttemberg), it was clear that Germany has built a robust R&D ecosystem that can retain its researchers, expertise, and innovation.
Culture: Past, Present, Future
There’s a German word Bildung that I recently read about (and quite honestly, I still don’t fully understand the myriad of interpretations behind the word). But from what I gathered, Bildung describes the integration of scholarship and culture where an understanding and appreciation of both can lead to self-maturation.
During my time in Germany, one of the things that stood out was the idea of Bildung being embraced throughout the country. From artistic inspiration to unapologetic museums, here we have a country that acknowledges its history (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and uses these lessons to build a better future. This theme of Old and New can be found in several forms such as the architectural design of the Humboldt Forum, the artistic voice of the East Side Gallery (which was formerly the Berlin Wall), and a 21st century elevator test tower that is located in one of the oldest German towns.
My personal favourite is Futurium, a museum that curates the prospective rather than the retrospective. What would space travel to Mars look like? What if we could plant trees on the side of buildings to cool down building temperatures? How do we build communities that can reduce air and noise pollution? How can we encourage sustainable living at scale? What can we do today to change tomorrow? These are just some of the questions you leave pondering and a fantastic way to engage both science and the humanities to better our society and the world!
Too much beer?
In Sydney, you could be forgiven for reducing German food culture to XL beer steins and the lederhosen. Whilst you won’t see much of the Bavarian attire out and about, you will however see beer, and LOTS of it!
Germans take their beer very seriously. The legal age to drink is 16 (which is before you can legally drive!). Beers are sold at every corner from supermarkets to cafes; and at the counter, you’d likely find a beer opener. Drinking beer by the river is a vibe – a regular social activity whether on a grassy patch of land or at a crowded beer garden. It also didn’t help that beer is generally cheaper than water. Yes, you read that right!
Now I’m someone who dislikes the taste of alcohol (crazy, right?) so when I learned that there was such a thing as non-alcoholic beer, I was certainly intrigued. Turns out I dislike non-alcoholic beer, too! As a scientist who had just completed a control experiment, my conclusion was that I also dislike hops which is a key ingredient behind making beer – there you go!
So what foods did I enjoy? If you like pasta, I would suggest trying Spaetzle which is a small pasta-like noodle and is traditionally served with a lentil stew. If you like mixing sodas together, you might also enjoy spezi which is a drink made from cola and orange soda (think Coca-Cola and Fanta). And then of course, the humble pretzel – affordable, convenient, and ever so satisfying for any meal of the day!
What do you want the future to look like? Let me know in the comments below!
I would like to thank the Science and Industry Endowment Fund, the Australian Academy of Science, and Baden-Wurttemberg International for making this trip possible. All views are my own.