Interview

AcademiaNet at a crossroads – a look back and future perspectives

18. 12. 2018 | The Robert Bosch Foundation (RBS) has founded AcademiaNet and funded the platform from the beginning. They now have to end the funding at a time when AcademiaNet starts to gain momentum. We spoke with Dr Katrin Rehak-Nitsche, Senior Vice President for Science and Research at the RBS, about the situation.
Dr Katrin Rehak-Nitsche
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(© Dr Katrin Rehak-Nitsche / Robert Bosch Foundation)


Dr Katrin Rehak-Nitsche


AcademiaNet: Dr Rehak-Nitsche, why does the RBS stop its funding for AcademiaNet now?


Dr Rehak-Nitsche: As a foundation, we do not provide funds for institutions as a matter of principle. Straight from the beginning it was clear that we will help start and develop AcademiaNet. But like all our projects it would have to have a beginning and an end.

AcademiaNet, however, is a special project and we don't want to end it completely. We don't think the work is done yet. But we need to transfer it and that is the process we are going through right now. When instigating the platform we therefore decided that at the end of our funding period we want someone else to take over the project and keep it going. This process of finding someone else and handing it over can't be completed within a day.


So, AcademiaNet will enter a second phase?


We have made several calls to the scientific community over the last couple of years to find someone who can take care of AcademiaNet. But for a very long time we have not been successful. It was quite disappointing to us because it is such an important topic. But now the Swiss National Science Foundation has declared a strong interest in taking over. We “just” need to secure the funding because they need other partners to pitch in money-wise. For that becoming reality we will make sure it can smoothly be handed over to the Swiss foundation.


Looking back, what are AcademiaNet's biggest successes?


With projects like this it's always a good question what one regards as greatest success. We do get a lot of positive feedback from organisations and universities: Many for example reported that AcademiaNet is a standard tool for them nowadays to look for potential candidates for professorships, boards or scientists they could invite for events, as examiners, etc. This is one side of the story. The other of course comes from the female scientists themselves.

Just a few examples: One female scientist thanked us because through AcademiaNet a university became interested in her as a scientist and she is now a fully appointed professor - thanks to her merits and the visibility of AcademiaNet. Another one got asked to be part of a panel in Finland. They found her through the AcademiaNet database. A third example: A professor told us she was asked to take over the chair of a major scientific association. After talking to and getting advise from fellow AcademiaNet scientists she decided to accept the chair. Without the platform she would have declined. Having peers to talk to and get advice from has obviously become a very important aspect of AcademiaNet and probably also one of the key points for the women.


Was that the original idea of AcademiaNet?


We came up with the project in the first place as a result of an anecdotal incident my predecessor, Dr Ingrid Wünning-Tschol, encountered: She was at a conference with very few women speaking. One of the reason people often said when asked why they didn't invite women as key speakers or for panel discussions was that they believed there were no excellent female scientists. But that is simply wrong. Even at the very beginning we already had nearly 500 profiles. So we thought it would be great to have one place where you can find female scientists that you can be sure of to be excellent. A platform like a one-stop-shop. This is the original thought we started with.


Making these women visible is also reflected in AcademiaNet's slogan. But “No more excuses!” is more than that, isn't it?


Indeed. Our original goal was not only to make women more visible but also to get more of them into leadership positions.


Has AcademiaNet succeeded in that?


It's really difficult to say which part is due to AcademiaNet's work. Well, let's say we have seen an increase in the last years. But it is far from what we consider as satisfactory. Equality would mean we have 50% plus or minus 10% women in leadership positions in science. But in many countries across Europe the number is rather close to 20%. That is one of the reasons why we believe it is important that the platform AcademiaNet can continue.


Sounds like AcademiaNet didn't do as well as it should have?


If we look at the overall situation, it is very different now than it was at the time of foundation: There are lots of mentoring programs for young (female) scientists, female professors, etc. now. Women in leadership positions in science even became a topic on the political agenda. Of course we can't say what part of that is due to AcademiaNet's work but it nevertheless is a success and we are one part of the jigsaw.

But the general problem lies within the system itself and that we can't change within a few years. Just think about this little rough calculation I once did: Every year there are just a few new professorships opening up. Even if 100% of these positions would be filled with women it would still take approximately 25 years to reach about 50% female professors. But that would also mean all the big organisations would have to prioritise women in leadership positions much more than some of them are doing now already.


What would help to change the system as a whole?


When thinking of tools to change the system one simply can't get past women's quotas. Looking at the system itself, self-commitment unfortunately hasn't gotten us the change we need. Quotas, no matter where, if in the industry or politics, always reach their goals if they are compulsory. In most cases we then see a quick improvement within the next two or three years. Usually, one is past the critical threshold then and could even think about abolishing the quota again because it might not be needed anymore. But it won't work if it is all voluntary, even if we raise a lot of awareness for the topic.


Several major scandals have rocked the science community in the last couple of years, for example the Tim Hunt affair in 2015. AcademiaNet didn't use these scandals and affairs to push women in science. Have we missed out on a great chance to raise awareness there?


We discussed this a lot at RBS. Of course one could use such topics to raise awareness and we've always said we support our female scientists if they wish to make a stand on that. But we as foundation decided not to. We want to focus on the women and their excellence, short: the bigger picture. One could rethink this position in relation to the #MeToo movement. But our future goal is also not so much to focus ever and only on women individually but on gender equality as a whole. We want that all people in science to have the same chances, men and women. But for that society as a whole has to start changing.


You mentioned earlier women need to become more visible. But another problem is that women often feel they stand alone and have to fight their way up, despite all the mentoring programs. How has AcademiaNet helped to improve that?


Networking has become an important part of AcademiaNet. We have 28 AcademiaNet Clubs now where AcademiaNet scientists can network on a regional base. And what shall I say? It's a great success, especially as the women also started to tackle science politics related topics and position themselves. This is what we encourage: We want people to become active as part of the society and we help by offering networks and platforms.


How did you support the Clubs?


The initiative always comes from the women themselves. We offer the platform and help linking them with each other. In the beginning we also gave them a little bit of financial support so that they for example could invite a speaker, etc. We never set any rules as to how the Clubs have to be managed and what they shall do. That is all up to the women what they feel is needed. But all women that are part of Clubs have fed back to us that it was very helpful and supportive to have the Clubs and our backup. The Clubs link the women that often work within very close vicinity of each other but hardly know their female peers. Some for example started supporting each other when looking for PhD-students. Or they discuss political issues regarding universities. One Club decided to use their standing as accomplished scientists to start a mentoring program and support other young scientists. But the key-point of the Clubs are the informal exchange and the invaluable possibility to network with peers.


What are your wishes for AcademiaNet's future?


We as foundation would love to see AcademiaNet go on and thrive. That it remains an open, transparent and accessible high-quality platform for everyone so that one day we will finally and for all get rid of this dreadful claim “We just couldn’t find excellent female scientists”. But I would also be delighted to see the women engaged in Clubs remain active, take over responsibility and support other young (female) scientists. Stay connected, network and be self-confident!


Thank you very much for this interview, Dr Rehak-Nitsche.


  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and Spektrum.de

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