At the end of August it was time. Now it would become clear whether the first interim goal of the PASCAL project would be achieved. This goal was to make the project and the scientific expertise behind it known to the African scientific community. To tell people what Jülich research, and that of its partners, stands for and what we are planning when, how, where and, above all, WHY.

Even though PASCAL is primarily a research marketing project that aims to initiate a science bridge between Forschungszentrum Jülich and African partners, the question is justified: why are we putting all this effort into the project and what will the participants get out of it at the end of the day?

PASCAL aims to teach young African scientists how coupled terrestrial simulation models may contribute to safe and sustainable food production. In practice, this will be done through two specific training courses: a training course on High-Performance Computing (HPC) in terrestrial systems and a hackathon focusing on HYDRUS, a software that can be used for analysis of water flow, heat and solute transport in variably saturated porous media – which means: in soils. The participants are to be enabled to conduct the analyses independently using powerful ‘supercomputers’ (HPC), to subject the results to a sound scientific evaluation and to derive new or improved management strategies for the agricultural sector. Coupled models can be used, for example, to simulate the flow of water from the soil through the plant into the atmosphere. The results can then be used to calculate how much water an agricultural crop needs in view of the predicted climate change.

Wow: 124 of the 183 applicants (excluding the applications sent by bots) applied for a travel grant. The total amount applied for: 132,000 euros!

When I switched on my notebook in the morning routine on September 3rd and opened the e-mail programme, 204 applications from all over Africa awaited me! After deducting various bot applications, there are 183 applications left. This is really an impressive number and I have to admit that I would have been satisfied with a smaller number in view of the upcoming work! For the PASCAL project, however, it is a complete success. Interim goal achieved! 183 scientists of different career levels (undergraduate students, doctoral candidates, lecturers, professors, heads of institutes, etc.) have applied for one of the only 30 available course places until August 31, 11:59 pm. This shows that we have really hit the bull’s eye with our assessment and that there is a great need for training courses in the field of HPC in Africa. The side programme, in which colleagues inform about the possibilities Germany offers for studying, doing a doctorate or working as a scientist, also met with great interest.

So who is offered a course place? Every colleague certainly weighted different criteria more or less strongly when reviewing the applications. For me, the motivation of the applicants was the first priority. It took me about three and a half working days to read all the letters of motivation. In particular, it was important to me that the content of our training courses matches the applicants’ CVs perfectly, i.e. who is likely to benefit most from courses? Another important aspect with regard to this single event: Can the applicants act as multipliers, i.e. can they pass on what they have learned during the PASCAL week to their colleagues? Geographical distribution: It was also clear that the participants should come from as many different countries as possible. In total, we received applications from 23 African countries. Some more applications we got from India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Taiwan and: Germany. And finally: 124 people applied for a travel grant. The total amount applied for: 132,000 euros! Another challenge, as only 5,000 euros are available for grants.

In the end, we agreed on 33 applicants to whom we have offered a place in the meantime. Incidentally, the proportion of women is 39%, which is a good ratio for the geosciences compared to German conditions. Over the next few days, it will become clear who will confirm its place or whether someone from the list of successors will be happy.

About Daniel Felten

Daniel Felten once was a biogeographer and soil scientist. Nine years ago, he swapped the field for a desk and has since then been involved in research management. He is heading Geoverbund ABC/J’s coordination office, located at the Agrosphere Institute at FZJ, which is organising the ABC/J excursion to Oman since 2016.