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Have you ever heard of Coptology, Thai studies or translation studies? There is a fair chance you never even realised that these subjects existed as academic disciplines in their own right. At Germany’s universities and research institutions, there are many such “smaller” or niche disciplines – “small” in the sense that there are only a handful of professors assigned to these fields. Sometimes they are also described in Germany as “orchid subjects”. Although they are particularly common in the humanities and cultural sciences, there are some in the natural sciences, too.
Why are these “small” subjects so important?
Although they cannot compete with major subjects like medicine or business studies in terms of the numbers of universities at which they are taught, the numbers of students choosing them or the availability of staff to teach them, and although many people are unaware of them, smaller niche subjects offer great potential: research in these fields “provides an important basis for decisions relating to current challenges by making available a wealth of knowledge about cultural, economic and social developments. It builds temporal and societal knowledge bridges, preserves the knowledge of the past and paves the way for research into the global challenges of the modern age”, claims the website of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).
Niche subjects – interdisciplinary and international
Niche subjects also score well because of the first-class conditions they often offer: the support provided to researchers tends to be excellent, precisely because the subjects are so small. In many cases, young researchers work hand in hand with the experts in their field. What is more, research in many of these exotic disciplines is highly international, with many departments enjoying outstanding global ties.
Germany boasts a very good international reputation in numerous areas such as the humanities, cultural sciences and social sciences. An important contribution in this context is often made by the smaller subject areas. As German research minister Professor Johanna Wanka stressed: “It is especially the smaller subjects that can really help a university to create a profile and structure for itself. They have particular strengths in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration and through their worldwide partnerships foster the internationalisation of German universities.”
Ten million euros in funding
From now on, the BMBF will be providing funding for ten outstanding young researchers each year in these lesser-known subjects. With its new funding programme, entitled “Small Subjects – Great Potential”, selected researchers are given the opportunity to spend a period of three years at a university or research institution in Germany, focusing on innovative and wide-ranging research subjects of their own choice. To this end, the BMBF is making available around ten million euros.
In Germany there is even a “small subjects working group” (only in German) in its own right, which studies and documents the situation faced by niche subjects at German universities.