Oct 092012

Dear Reader,

When the vice president for research of the Johannes Gutenberg-University, Ulrich Foerstermann, entered the Auditorium Maximum on 15 June, there was something strange about the atmosphere in the room. For all intents, the air should have been permeated by breath-taking suspense and everyone present should have lapsed into anticipatory silence. Curiously enough, neither happened. Admittedly, the expression on Foerstermann’s face already suggested what he was about to announce — but most of the audience already knew anyway. JGU had not succeeded in the 3rd line of funding of the Federal Excellence Initiative. Over the preceding months, university authorities, researchers, nonacademic staff and students had invested a lot of time, effort, money and heart in writing proposals, preparing and rehearsing institutional visits, and overcoming stage fright, all in order to eventually be crowned one of Germany’s “elite” universities and — much more important — earn an annual additional 18 million euros of funding. The hopes were cautiously high, yet by far exceeded by the pressure. The message that the unfortunate Mr. Foerstermann had to deliver that afternoon could have easily become a big blowoff. But it didn’t. Physically speaking, prevent-ing a high pressure container from bursting is all about even distribution. So in this case, it may have been just the right distribution of two things that helped averting a blowoff: (1) expectations and (2) — smart phones. The latter worked as veritable safety valves: Rather than hitting all those present at the same time, the bad news reached the crowd via German Press Agency push alert at several points, from which the effect could slowly spread across the room, until pressure was evenly released.

Science under Pressure is day-to-day business for everyone working at JUnQ: After all, we are young scholars at the beginning of our careers. As the final compiling and editing of this issue took place during the final phase and days of the third Excellence Initiative, it should only be appropriate that Science under Pressure is its key topic. It is my great pleasure to present to you this fourth issue of JUnQ. Science and pressure are intrinsically associated: in a way science is always under pressure — its purpose is to find explanations and solutions to societal and ecological challenges, which themselves appear to become more and more pressing. Besides that, however, the scientific system and community itself seem to be organized by a complex interplay of external and internal pressures. During the last decades, the German scientific system has seen quite a lot of changes. Universities have become increasingly dependent on third party funding and with competition growing internationally, time pressure and also the pressure to publish keep rising. Lately, German policymakers count on the potential of competitive spirit to inspire and foster top level research. Of course, the money behind programs like the Excellence Initiative can take a lot of pressure off a university (and certainly could have done so in the case of Mainz) and enable scientists to do out-standing research: In the short-term, it allows for building, hiring staff, buying equipment, and maybe even coping with the steadily growing number of beginning students each semester — creating the vital infrastructural environment excellent research depends on. In the long run, the symbolic power of the evocative title “elite university” alone can create visibility which in turn can be helpful in gaining follow-up funding and attracting high end research(ers).
But what looks so appealing naturally has its downsides, too. As we all know, noblesse oblige, and the exclusive label can raise expectations immensely, which ultimately translates into higher pressure for the individual researcher. The label and funding come with continuous and close observation by scientometricians and questionable measures of quality assessment, and force research into a tight time-regime: The funding period of five years is often not long enough to make progresses that suffice the competition’s criteria. In order for interdisciplinary research cooperatives (very popular with Initiative evaluators) to work, however, there a common ground of understanding has to be established first. This may well take some time, maybe particularly in the humanities and social sciences (who are systematically at a disadvantage in this competition). This operational basis cannot be reached by force and according to schedule. In science, unlike with diamonds, pressure is not the main ingredient needed to form something great: It is time. Among the less fortunate are those universities, clusters and graduate schools who fail to deliver in time. They lose the noble prefix and no longer benefit from the additional funding and reputation. Competition not only offers possibilities to foster excellent research, but also to “fail” with high public impact.

In this issue, we throw a glimpse into the complex inner workings of the pressure equilibrium beneath the scientific system. Obviously, it takes a lot of variables to understand them, and those variables would have to be integrated in a model. Leonie Mueck’s article tries to offer one such model to help us understand the logics and principles of pressure and science, as well as assess the effectiveness of pressure exerted by competitive funding. Besides science as a whole, it is first and foremost the individual scientist, from student to junior professor to dean, who is affected by various sorts of pressure. This may especially be the case for young researchers. The qualification phase is a period of precarious employment and time pressure is always high.  Many young scholars do not know whether they will manage to achieve a professorship until forty, and they make their way hand over hand from one temporary employment to the next. When the pressure gets too high, some make an early exit from academia. Is external pressure an effective motivation for scientists? How do external and personal subjective pressure relate? How do scientists deal with pressure? To get an inside view on these questions, Thomas Jagau talked to scientists under pressure and shares their experiences.

All pressure aside, I conclude this editorial note with three high notes: Firstly, JUnQ has again received public recognition and has been awarded the “Deutscher Ideenpreis” (German Prize for Ideas) 2012. Secondly, the founding of JUnQ e.V. has made progress and soon everyone interested in supporting JUnQ can become member of the association. Finally, and it is my special pleasure to announce this, regular readers will (have) notice(d) that this issue of JUnQ is a first in that it features articles not only from natural and life sciences, but from the humanities as well. We are delighted that the JUnQ-idea is spreading across academic disciplines, and encourage scholars from all academic fields to keep on contributing their current and pending “UnQs” and noticeable attempts to solve them.

Tobias Boll

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