Berlin saw sunshine and rain in equal measure when the Humboldt Foundation ( AvH) held its annual press conference on 24 May, and there was both good and bad news for potential fellowship applicants. On the sunny side, AvH president Wolfgang Frühwald announced that outstanding scientists from abroad will receive up to 30% higher stipends in the future. But, because the foundation has to work within existing budgetary restraints, fewer fellowships will be available overall, leading to grey skies for some.

Humboldt Research Fellowships allow scientists of any nationality not resident in Germany to conduct research at a German research institute of their choice. The selection criterion is simply "scientific excellence." The increased stipends mean that these excellent researchers will receive between ?2200 and ?3100 monthly, compared to the ?1840 to ?2250 that the fellowships are worth at present. (The stipend that an individual fellow receives is determined by the Humboldt?s selection committee.) Additionally, supplements based on marital status can be given.

"Money of that order means we will attract the best candidates," explained Frühwald. "Even compared with the USA, the financial support is high enough to ensure that Germany will remain financially attractive for the future international science elite." However, improving the quality of the research fellowships does have a serious effect on their quantity, Frühwald admits. "We have a tight budget," he points out, the majority of which is provided by the German Foreign Ministry, so just 600 fellowships will be available this year.

Frühwald would particularly like to see applications for those places from women. Only 28% of current Humboldt fellows are female, but despite the fact that the foundation does not have a special programme to support them, "Women who apply for Humboldt Research Fellowships have a higher success rate than male applicants," he points out.

Germans living abroad can apply to the Humboldt Foundation for a returnee fellowship. However, "it is not our primary mission to bring back those who have left the country," said Frühwald. Rather, he says, "we are trying to attract international excellence to our country."

The Humboldt Foundation also used its annual press briefing as an opportunity to present its " Top Research Addresses" ranking for 2002 (click here for a full view of the graphic). Because German universities do not occupy a level playing field in terms of their funding, ranking them is difficult. However, the Humboldt?s ranking, which is based simply on a "vote by foot" that takes individual fellowship-holders? decisions into account, gives an indication of how institutions? scientific excellence is perceived at the international level.

Not surprisingly, Germany?s 300 or so universities and research institutes do not all hold the same attraction for leading international scientists. In fact, 50% of the Humboldt research fellows settle at just 20 universities. Based on the absolute number of guest researchers, Munich?s Technical University leads the pack with 116 Humboldt fellows, ahead of the University of Munich (115), Berlin?s Free University (112), the University of Heidelberg (95), and Berlin?s Humboldt University (85). Therefore, these three cities could be considered as most attractive places for international researchers.

But a closer look at the relative figures, taking the universities? sizes into account, gives a different conclusion. Although the Technical University of Munich is able to hold its top position even in relative figures (22.5 guest researchers per 100 professors), other universities come into the picture as well: Ulm (21.4), Heidelberg (20.0), Bayreuth (19.0), and Karlsruhe (18.9) are runners-up.

As AvH president Frühwald admits, no ranking is perfect and methodological questions can be asked. "Certainly, there?s a geographical bias in the survey as well: People prefer places like Berlin and Munich, which don?t only offer high-quality research institutes, but cultural value as well." However, "looking at these figures, we do have something like an Ivy League of German universities," Frühwald suggested.

He urged German universities to continue to strive for increased international visibility. And he called on politicians to take the AvH?s statistics into account. "The new catalogue of indicators for a performance evaluation of German universities" does not include attracting international researchers, but should, he believes, because providing services such as counselling for them is expensive. "We are witnesses to a process of differentiation and profile-building among the universities," he said, with universities in the five new states especially "showing a very positive trend in their efforts."