“Germany needs you”
“What I see here in terms of creativity and inventiveness never ceases to amaze me,” said Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the reception for “Jugend forscht” winners on Monday. The competition had attracted entries from nearly 9,000 talented youngsters. Fortunately, the coronavirus pandemic had done little to dampen their urge to carry out research, said Merkel.
With last year’s reception having been cancelled altogether due to the pandemic, the Federal Chancellor said she was pleased that at least a virtual gathering was possible – “Jugend forscht” was a personal highlight in her schedule, she added.
“Jugend forscht” is a competition for young researchers that has so far been held 56 times. It was launched in 1965 by Henri Nannen, then editor-in-chief of the magazine “stern”. More than 280,000 young people have entered the competition to date, and it involves 5,000 volunteers – teachers and trainers, professors and human resources specialists – as project supervisors and competition managers. The individual projects are evaluated by some 3,000 subjects specialists and university lecturers as well as experts from the private sector – likewise on a voluntary basis.
Diversity and fascinating detail
The Federal Chancellor said the award-winning young researchers made her optimistic about the future, adding that she was particularly struck by the diversity and fascinating detail of the numerous projects. Whether medical technology, artificial intelligence, environmental technology or renewable energies – she said she believed this was the way to open up the future, offering all the prizewinners her warm congratulations for their wonderful ideas.
She said it also meant a lot to her that some 40 percent of entrants were girls. This was less than half, she noted, but the positive long-term trend in terms of participant numbers was a hopeful sign. “We need all the talent our country has to offer. We need it to fight climate change, to drive technological transformations and digital revolutions, and last but not least, we need it in order to make progress in the healthcare sector,” stressed Merkel.
Science and research more important than ever
The coronavirus pandemic in particular had shown how important science and research were for all of us, said Merkel. The fact that it was possible to develop effective vaccines in a relatively short time was an achievement that simply couldn’t be appreciated highly enough, she said.
This is why, even during the pandemic, the Federal Government’s target is still to spend a total of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development by 2025. According to the Federal Chancellor, 3.18 percent of GDP went into research and development last year – a total of 110 billion euros. This puts Germany among the world’s innovation leaders. Investment in research and innovation and the faster transfer of research findings into products and services are the basis of prosperity, sustainable development and quality of life in Germany.
“Jugend forscht” – a success story and a special anniversary
Every year, Federal Chancellor Merkel awards a special prize for the most original project. This tradition dates back to 1971, when the then Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt awarded the special prize for the first time. This year was the 50th time the special prize was awarded. Back then, the number of participants had been just under 1,000, said Merkel, while today, as many as 10,000 young people regularly entered the competition every year.
The motto of this year’s “Jugend forscht” competition was Lass Zukunft da (“Let there be a future”). Almost 9,000 young researchers entered the competition with more than 5,100 projects nationwide. “Jugend forscht” promotes outstanding achievements and talent in the STEM subjects – mathematics, IT, science and technology. The aim is to get young people interested in these subjects in the long term and give them support in starting a career beyond the competition.
Special prize for the most original project 2021: “Dramatic species loss”
Insect mortality is a subject of frequent debate, but less is said about how it is directly linked to the loss of flowering plants. Jakob Nolte (21) from Laubach/Hesse mapped the flora in the vicinity of Laubach over three summers and compared his surveys with botanical records in the literature.
Since several publications exist for the area under investigation – the oldest dates back to 1887 – it was possible to make long-term comparisons. These indicate a massive impoverishment of the flora: the number of orchid species has declined rapidly, while goosefoot plants have disappeared completely. Around 80 percent of all species have become increasingly rare or have died out. The only species to have increased are a small number that are particularly soil nitrogen-loving. Young researcher Nolte therefore calls for less fertilisation and greater emphasis on nature conservation – to boost biodiversity.
For his research project, Jakob Nolte received the “Federal Chancellor’s special prize for the most original project”, which is worth 3,000 euros. He had the opportunity to explain his award-winning project to the Federal Chancellor at the virtual event. After numerous research papers in past years featuring “technical experimental set-ups” and “mathematical puzzles”, the Federal Chancellor said she was particularly pleased to see that a research project in the field of botany had been selected for the special prize this year.
Germany thrives on innovative flair
Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek also congratulated the prizewinners on their award-winning research projects, saying they demonstrated that “we can all be winners”. After all, it was people with qualities such as innovative flair, inventiveness and practical curiosity that made Germany thrive, she added – people who were driven by the question of how to improve the quality of life.
The prizewinners were just such individuals, said the Federal Minister of Education and Research, because step by step they were creating something new to tackle many of the major issues of our time. “They are proof that our country has lots of wonderful and very bright young people, and that creativity and commitment are highly valued among youngsters in our society,” said Karliczek.
Questions to the Federal Chancellor
The award-winning researchers had the opportunity to address personal questions to the Federal Chancellor during the video conference. Current political and economic issues were not the only subjects to be brought up: the questions also addressed Angela Merkel’s career.
For example, Aruna Sherma (19 years), 2nd prize in physics, was interested to find out what the Federal Chancellor’s goals had been during her university studies, and whether she had regarded her physics degree as a way of being able to change the world.
Federal Chancellor Merkel: She had started studying with the intention of being able to explain the world better to herself, and with the hope of one day being able to explain something that had not been explained before, she said. Even though she had not expected to “make a ground-breaking discovery”, she was later able to “make certain small-scale calculations that nobody had done before”. Her advice to the young researcher was “not to get too overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of things”, possibly focusing on a specialised field with the aim of contributing something new.
Helen Hauck (18 years), 2nd prize in chemistry, asked the Federal Chancellor about the greatest difficulties and challenges she faced as a woman, both during her career as a scientist and later as a politician on the world stage. She also asked Angela Merkel whether she had any advice for the young generation of female scientists.
Federal Chancellor Merkel: All in all, her approach to her studies had been very different from that of her male colleagues, she said, adding that she had taken much more time to think about things. After all, this had been her approach in politics, too, she said: think about things carefully, observe, ensure you have a good grasp of everything, and then speak out. At this point, you ought to have the confidence to do so, she said.
The national winner of the Federal Minister of Education and Research’s prize for the best interdisciplinary project in the field of technology, Amon Schumann (aged 17), believes that the current climate crisis can only be countered by massive technological progress if we are to maintain our current level of prosperity. So he asked the Federal Chancellor what she thought could be done politically to promote technological progress in Germany.
Federal Chancellor Merkel: As a politician, you only set the framework by investing in research and development, she said, adding that this required a strong industrial base and above all predictability. To this end, she said, the Federal Government had introduced tax incentives to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to get more involved in research. This also included universities and non-university research institutions, she said: they would receive funding up until 2030. It was important to her that research should not be “dictated by politics”, said Merkel. As an example, she mentioned the German Research Foundation, which evaluated performance on a science-driven, politically independent basis. It was important to her that research results could be translated into practical application, she said.
Saramaria Schreib (18 years), 4th prize in the area of working life, was interested in what is currently being done to reduce the high workload of doctors and hospital staff and also to counter the shortage of doctors in rural areas. She also asked whether there were plans to improve the compatibility of work and family for young female doctors.
The Federal Chancellor: In her opinion, municipalities should consider offering health centres again, she said, where doctors shared surgeries so as not to have to take up debts on their own, also enabling “manageable working hours”. Telemedicine and fixed contact persons were also important, she added, especially in rural areas. Broadband expansion was a key issue here too, of course, said Merkel.
Lukas Dellermann (18 years), 3rd prize in chemistry, believes that plastics can achieve great things, even though they are currently the subject of much social criticism. So he asked the Federal Chancellor what she thought of the future prospects of plastics, and whether politicians tended to see the benefits of the material or the potential waste problems they caused.
Federal Chancellor Merkel: In the future, we would not be able to do without materials, she said, and this included plastics. However, it was important to ask what kind of energy was used to produce them, she said, and what happened to the CO2 produced in the process. The question here was to look at how far it was possible to achieve a circular economy in the production of materials, said Merkel, adding that there was still a long way to go before the full potential had been exhausted. In the future, the entire lifecycle would play an increasingly important role in terms of lifecycle assessment, she said.
David Sauer (17 years), 3rd prize in biology, is keen on natural sciences and would like to work in academic research later on in life. However, he believes that both the working conditions and career prospects are poor in this sector. He asked the Federal Chancellor whether she saw a perspective as to how he might still be able to pursue his preferred career without ending up stuck in “eternally limited and underpaid postdoc contracts”.
Federal Chancellor Merkel advised him that if his “status” still hadn’t improved after the second postdoc contract, he ought to consider whether it might not be better to go into industry or business or set up his own company, especially at a young age. The Federal Government had tried to compensate for this “uncertainty” by introducing tenure-track professorships at universities and non-university research institutions.
Ever since 1981, the competition has traditionally involved all national winners and runners-ups (2nd to 5th prizes in the seven competition categories) being invited to a reception at the Federal Chancellery and the presentation of the “Special prize for the most original project” (3,000 euros).