Research for sustainability

Overcoming today’s ecological crises will be virtually impossible without the innovative impetus of international scientists. The DAAD is making an important contribution with its funding programmes – while reforming its own organisation at the same time.

Issue 2 | 2022

Text: Klaus Lüber

Though the goal is clear, the path is fraught with challenges. According to the latest ana­lyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have only a few years left to limit the impact of climate change to a just bearable level. In addition, environmental pollution and species extinction pose a threat to our very existence. We can only survive if we engage in concerted global action: what is needed is innovation. This does not mean only technological solutions; it also means changing societies on every level to ensure that people embrace and bring about the necessary transition.

As far as research is concerned, this means above all facing up to the complexity of the challenge. “On the one hand, there are very many specific research questions that need to be analysed extremely carefully before informed responses can be found,” believes Dr Christian Schäfer, Head of Section Research and Studies at the DAAD. “And on the ­other, the academic standards and aspirations of the respective disciplines, not to mention the ­heterogeneous local conditions, make it difficult to integrate all the different individual results. This can cause one to lose sight of the actual goal – which is to translate the research findings into concrete action.” In his opinion, the only way to avoid this is to have precise know-ledge of the situation at the local level and to involve everyone concerned. Rather than thinking in purely academic terms, it is best to follow an approach that takes multiple perspectives into account so as to develop solutions that genuinely work. “And I believe this is exactly where the strength of the DAAD lies.”

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climate-related funding projects in 14 programmes.


A good illustration is the DAAD’s climapAfrica programme that supports future leaders in the field of climate research and protection in Africa. It encompasses not only an excellent postdoc scholarship programme, but also a wide range of offerings for alumni. At its heart are seven working groups that pursue research in the areas of meteorology, biodiversity, agricultural science, development research, green energy, urban development and migration with a focus on climate change in Africa. “In these teams, the postdocs work together with precisely those German funding institutions that are relevant to them,” explains Christian Schäfer. “It is about creating the ideal conditions for sustainable innovations by identifying people who truly want and are able to change things.”

“Being an academic organ­isation, the DAAD bears a ­special responsibility: in addition to our global funding activities in the area of climate action and climate adaptation, we have set ourselves the ambitious goal of making our business operations climate-neutral by 2030.”

Professor Joybrato Mukherjee, President of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

ClimapAfrica is one of many scholarship programmes in the area of sustainability supported by the DAAD with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Dr Holger Finken, Head of Section Research Fellowship Programmes at the DAAD, stresses: “The programmes are highly ­focused on specific fields, allowing the DAAD to draw in this context on its enormous experience and, above all, on its large-scale global network.” A funding programme has recently been approved in the field of green hydrogen, while current projects are focusing on marine and coastal research in southern Africa and on sustainable water management with partner countries such as Brazil, Vietnam or Namibia. “The DAAD’s activities are aimed at fostering science – not only the basic research that leads to evidence-based decisions, but also applied research. In other words, the entire spectrum of what science can contribute to resolving the climate problem,” sums up Finken.

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of DAAD alumnae and alumni surveyed three years after receiving funding stated that they were working in a climate- or environmental-related field.

Towards the end of 2022, the programme Make Our Planet Great Again – German Research Initiative (MOPGA-GRI) was brought to a successful conclusion. The programme is part of a Franco-German research initiative and made it possible for interdiscip­linary cutting-edge research on the Paris climate targets to be carried out at German higher education and research institutions. The 13 scientists who were funded obtained innovative and application-oriented research findings in the core areas of climate, energy and earth system research. “At the same time, the programme was highly successful as a brain regain,” is the conclusion drawn by Ursula Hardenbicker, the DAAD programme man­ager responsible: “Most of the scientists who came or returned to Germany with MOPGA-GRI will continue their academic careers here.”

Increasing the impact of its funding programmes, training experts and leaders and generating and applying climate knowledge is just one element of the DAAD’s sustainability activities, however. The organisation believes it is equally import­ant to make its business operations as resource-friendly and emissions-free as possible – further reducing its carbon footprint, in other words. The DAAD’s target is for its operations to be climate-neutral by 2030. “Reflecting on the 2030 Agenda brought it home to us as an organisation that sustainability applies to and demands all of our international cooperation,” explains Dr Ruth Fuchs, Head of the Sustainability Office that was established at the DAAD in 2021.

“Given the challenges of the Anthropocene, sustainable development is vital for us: in terms of the potential international research offers for finding solutions, in terms of our own organisation and in terms of our global network.”

Professor Joybrato Mukherjee, President of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

This poses a particular challenge for the DAAD. “Given that international exchange is in our organ­isation’s DNA, we will of course continue to actively promote physical mobility and personal encounters in the future,” says Fuchs. “However, even under these conditions we see plenty of scope for making our academic collaboration climate-friendly.” The results of a carbon footprint analysis published in November 2022 identified the available scope for action. Areas that the DAAD plans to tackle include mobility and events. This also involves raising staff awareness about sustainable travel and expanding digital and hybrid event formats. As far as its funding programmes are concerned, the DAAD has widened its range of services in the area of international digit­al cooperation, too. Ruth Fuchs explains that a key role in this is played by the close cooperation with higher education institutions. “On the one hand, we support universities in their desire to make projects more sustainable. And on the other, we encourage them even during the application process to give consideration to aspects of sustain­ability.”

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of scholarship holders surveyed said they used their climate-related funding for a research project.


In the Sustainability Agenda it published in 2020, the DAAD set itself four objectives: to increase the contribution that DAAD programmes make to the 2030 Agenda, to make knowledge available for sustainable development, to ensure the sustain­ability of its funding activities and to strengthen its own sustainability management. Talking about these ambitious goals, Christian Schäfer concludes: “The DAAD has many opportunities to drive forward urgently needed innovations in the area of sustainability: through its network and its collabor­ation with all kinds of different institutions, and by interlinking activities in many regions of the world. This is how to make possible fully thought through decisions and, most importantly, actions for more sustainability.” —