Wars and oppression have led to German universities and research institutions applying to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for more and more money for researchers seeking protection. “The need has increased extremely since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2021 and has reached gigantic proportions since the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said foundation employee Frank Albrecht of the German Press Agency.

Albrecht heads the “Philipp Schwartz Initiative and Academic Freedom” department. Since 2015, the initiative has been awarding funding to German universities and research institutions, which they can use to finance foreign scientists for two years.

Since the start of the Ukraine war, the volume of applications has temporarily increased to 300 percent of previous years and is currently still at almost 200 percent, said Albrecht. Initially 50 to 60 scientists were supported per year, now there are 80 to 100.

The reasons why the researchers sought protection were very different. Because of the war in Ukraine, many scientists are no longer able to work at their universities. In Russia, critical scientists have experienced increased repression by secret services since the Ukraine war.

Among those supported from other countries was a historian who had researched the military history of her country. However, the results of their work did not fit the government’s current narrative. Another example is a Syrian legal scholar who studied international criminal law in Damascus.

Expert meeting at the invitation of the foundation

“She then discovered that the Syrian secret service was starting to sit in her lectures,” reports Albrecht. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, women were completely banned from universities. Tomorrow, at the invitation of the foundation, around 400 scientists and political experts will meet in Berlin to discuss issues relating to international academic freedom and to network.

According to Albrecht, there are no surveys of how many scientists worldwide are at risk. However, international studies have shown that over 3.5 billion people worldwide live in countries where academic freedom is severely restricted. According to Albrecht, the Philipp Schwartz Initiative has supported around 500 scientists from 26 countries since 2015. Most of them come from Turkey, Ukraine and Syria.

With this initiative, the Humboldt Foundation, together with the Federal Foreign Office, was the first research funding organization in Germany to launch a protection program for endangered and persecuted scientists. Since then, the program has set a precedent at national and international levels. It is named after the pathologist of Jewish faith Philipp Schwartz. In 1933 he had to flee Germany from the National Socialists and founded the “Emergency Community of German Scientists Abroad”.