Thoughts from a Researcher in Germany

“The longer I live in Germany, the more sensitized I become to the small differences between here and the US,” says Professor Colin Vance.

Vance works as an environmental economist at the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (RWI) in Essen and teaches economics and econometrics part-time at the private English-language Jacobs University in Bremen. RWI undertakes research contracts for German government ministries, some private clients, and supranational bodies like the European Union and the World Bank. The office language at RWI is German, though a lot of the research and report writing is done in English.

In 2003, Vance left a job at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, moving with his German wife and two small children to take up a post at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. After 18 months, he moved to Essen where his wife’s family live.

Same but different
“For academics, Germany is like the US when it comes to expectations of getting promotions and moving up through the ranks,” says Vance. “If you want to become a professor—and move up through the different levels—emphasis is put on teaching as well as research. It is also always good if you can bring in third-party funding.”

There are no significant differences between the German and American approaches to economic problems from a research perspective. But German cultural attitudes to the environment can be very different. “RWI is taking a fairly overt position in the discussions on prolonging the life of German nuclear power facilities, for example. Our institute has been in favor of that based on various economic considerations, but in Germany there is a lot of hostility to nuclear power,” says Vance. “Ultimately economics is concerned with welfare and a part of welfare is people’s conceptions of danger. Understanding German cultural attitudes to such things took some adapting to.”

“That spills over into renewable energy—something we work on a lot. There is a surprising level of support for the promotion of renewable energy, even if it means that people’s electricity bills increase. I don’t think you would find that level of tolerance in the US,” continues Vance.

There are other differences. With about six weeks vacation a year, Vance says that it can be hard for an American to find ways to fill it. He is always surprised at the number of phones without answering machines. And there are products from home that he just can’t find in the supermarkets.

Within the universities themselves, there can be a greater distance between students and their professors, although that may be changing for the better, says Vance. US-style ratings of teaching performance have come in, for instance. “Possibly because the students aren’t paying very much, they don’t have the sense of entitlement that students have in the US,” he continues.

Americans coming in should be aware of the prestige attached to titles, Vance adds. People may want to be called “Professor Doctor,” for instance. And they pay more attention to hierarchy. In the past, Germans were slow to recognize academic titles that did not match their system. But again, Vance says, that is changing. It’s an area where he sees the Germans “loosening up”.

Gone native
Essen was a nineteenth-century coal-mining center that became very industrialized. For that reason, it was heavily bombed in the Second World War and rebuilt mostly in sometimes uninspiring concrete. Vance looks back fondly on his time in Berlin, and while he describes Essen as lacking in aesthetic charm, he maintains that it has many cultural and other amenities: “There is a great music scene here and several fine museums.”

Vance uses some of those long vacations to visit family and relatives in the US, but moving back permanently would be another matter. “The kids make friends and really do take on the culture—more than me. I see us here while our kids are going through grammar school and high school—at least another 9 years—and probably thereafter … I don’t see us moving back.”

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