FONA clarifies career opportunities in sustainability research

Mapping careers through complex research landscapes can be hard. FONA helpfully identifies the landmarks and clarifies career paths to personal goals.

Defining a researcher career path is challenging at the best of times. This is especially the case for multidisciplinary sustainability researchers because careers advice tends to fall under traditional labels such as ‘physicist’ or ‘economist’. And, newly-qualified researchers tend to approach their careers a step at a time, jumping from one project to the next, until forced into a long-term perspective. Helpfully, though, FONA’s extensive institutional reach helps long-term career orientation for early career researchers who might not yet have extensive personal networks or detailed knowledge of research landscapes.

FONA LogoFONA is the acronym for Forschung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung or ‘Research for Sustainable Development’. It started in 2005 and connects local, national and global environment and sustainability research communities with the aim to ‘preserve the stability and regenerative capacity of the ecological, economic and social system.’ It is a series of four-year Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) funding programmes. The third series started in 2015 as FONA³ which focusses on the Green Economy, City of the Future and Energiewende (energy system transformation). By 2019, FONA will have provided some €5.25bn funding to approximately 9,000 projects and funding recipients represent most of the German environmental research landscape. The trick for individual researchers is to identify FONA programmes, match them to personal career stages and connect career stages to research institutions with appropriate job opportunities. The Green Talents Alumni programme, an award to outstanding international early career researchers in sustainability, is FONA funded and it does just that.

Since 2009 there have been 207 Green Talents Alumni awardees. Renaldo Belfon (Trinidad and Tobago, Renaldo Belfon2015 Green Talent) and Alexander Gusev Alexander Gusev (Russia, 2010 Green Talent) are at different career stages and both highlight how the award gives a career momentum and direction. Renaldo gained the award for his work on integration of soil science, economics, labour studies and climate change. He explained that his Green Talents research stay at the University of Tübingen, allowed him to transition into limnology. He said, ‘My background in soil science brought fresh perspectives to the research team and resulted in a PhD offer in one of the most competitive labs in Europe.’ Following his Green Talents award Alexander Gusev received the German Chancellor Fellowship of the Humboldt Foundation. He noted, ‘After the fellowship, I joined Nobel Prize winner Professor Carlo Rubbia’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam.’ Being a Green Talent awardee helps propel a career in research forwards. FONA added a postdoctoral career option in 2017, MOPGA-GRI.

The Franco-German Fellowship Programme (MOPGA-GRI) on Climate, Energy and Earth System Research Funding was created in partnership with the French initiative ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’. MOPGA-GRI invites international postdoctoral researchers to start their own research groups in Germany to support the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Awardees receive up to €1.5m to run their own research group at a German host institution. And, again, searching through FONA funding recipients identifies potential research hosts for MOPGA-GRI researchers and others.

For example, a FONA website search quickly highlights projects like the multi-institutional CO2Plus – Utilisation of CO2 to broaden the raw material base. It consists of joint research projects in applied and industrial research and development at Forschungzentrum Jülich (one of the largest energy research centres in Europe), RWTH Aachen (a prominent technical university), Ruhr University Bochum, Siemens (leading a research consortium on the production of ethylene), Evonik and the Helmholtz Institute Erlangen-Nürnberg. Another search throws up the research project InoCottonGrow which ‘kicked off’ in July 2017. Its subject is sustainable water use in the cotton supply chain. Germans wear a lot of T-shirts. The Institute for Water and Waste Management (FiW) at RWTH Aachen leads the multi-partner project including those in the supply chain in Pakistan and Turkey. FONA’s funding reflects the fact that sustainability is a global problem and reaches out across the world.

If you look further afield you will spot FONA’s Regional Science Service Centres (RSCCs) for climate change and adapted land use in Africa. SASSCAL works with five South African nations and WASCAL works with ten West African nations. FONA also has a special programme for young researchers on sustainable water management which extends to 14 non-African developing nations from Cambodia through Kyrgyzstan, Laos and Iran.

FONA, then, not only showcases Germany’s commitment to sustainability and climate research it records thousands of projects, funding streams and active institutions across all economic sectors. FONA’s website is a database of funded programmes providing an invaluable source of information for international researchers at all career stages. It highlights the not always obvious connections between institutions with related interests across the range of sustainability and climate change research and allows a researcher to identify where career opportunities will arise. And, for high achievers (like Green Talents or MOPGA-GRI awardees) FONA actively kick starts long-term careers in Germany and beyond. If you are exploring career options in sustainability look at FONA.

The next article in this series looks at the artistic and scientific success of the Kiel Cluster of Excellence “Future Ocean”.