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An Interview with Johannes Hahn: Austrian Federal Minister for Science & Research

bridges vol. 17, April 2008 / People in the Spotlight

by Caroline Adenberger



Credit: Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF)
Johannes "Gio" Hahn

Albert Einstein once stated: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited." Surfing on the Web site of Austria's Ministry for Science and Research (BMWF), one comes across a very similar statement: "Creativity is the fertile ground on which our society thrives and prospers." This statement, however, was not issued by a freethinking scientist but by a politician, namely Austria's number one in science and research policy, Johannes Hahn, the Austrian Federal Minister for Science and Research.

This statement certainly elicits curiosity and the desire to learn more about Dr. Hahn. A philosopher by academic training, Johannes "Gio" Hahn (the nickname by which he is commonly known in Austria) has been on duty since January 2007, and bridges recently had an opportunity to speak with him. In the following interview, he answers questions about Austria's higher education and university system in a European and international context and his visions and ideas for Austria's future knowledge society.

bridges: High-quality (secondary and tertiary) education is seen by many as the key to long-term success in R&D.  What measures do you propose for supplying the demand for a highly qualified scientific work force?

Gio Hahn: There are of course a number of factors contributing to a highly qualified work force in R&D. My role as minister is to listen very closely to the proposals or demands of the scientific community and the research funding organizations that are directly involved. Among the points that I consider vital are the mobility of students and researchers (incoming and outgoing), early stage researchers' career prospects, and tapping the still underutilized great potential of female researchers. A number of measures already exist, but we now reinforce our efforts.

We also support a number of programs reaching out to the young at the school level - directing their interests into science and research at an early stage in summer universities, internships in laboratories, or through the program "Sparkling Science" involving schools and pupils in state-of-the-art research to name only a few.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: The BMWF is currently organizing the so-called "Forschungsdialog" (Research Dialogue, www.forschungsdialog.at) at universities throughout Austria. What is the goal of these talks, and how will their outcome influence research in Austria?

Gio Hahn: Most of the current strategies on science and research on a national and European level will expire in 2010 (e.g., the Lisbon strategy, "Strategy 2010" of the Austrian Council). The Research Dialogue offers all S&T stakeholders, as well as the interested public, a yearlong opportunity to contribute their perspectives on a new strategy for science and research for the next decade.

The Research Dialogue is a bottom-up process. Thus, its impact depends on the participation of the scientific community and the quality of the ideas that come up during the different sessions. I am optimistic that I can present a forward-looking set of proposals regarding the future Austrian priorities in S&T when we all meet in Alpbach at the Technology Forum this summer.

bridges: With the internationalization of higher education, many students plan to spend at least one semester abroad during their university education. Austria has set the goal of having 50 percent of all its university students participate in a study-abroad program by 2020. What measures do you plan to implement in order to achieve this goal?

Gio Hahn: Of course, it is necessary that the students themselves recognize the added value of gaining international experience and of studying abroad. Therefore I have launched, together with the Austrian Exchange Service, an awareness-raising campaign called "Move yourself and your career," in order to better inform and encourage Austrian students to study abroad. In order to give students an additional incentive to go abroad, I plan to increase the number of scholarships for student mobility.

The national co-funding for the ERASMUS scholarship program has already helped to continuously increase the number of Austrian students participating in this European mobility flagship program, and funding was increased last spring as one of my first initiatives in this field.

Students receiving grants (Studienbeihilfe) in Austria will be able to take their grants abroad not only for a study abroad period, but also for a full course of studies at a university in an EEA member state and in Switzerland.

bridges: Doctoral programs revisited:  An amendment to the Austrian Universities Act of 2002 provided the legal groundwork for revising the Austrian doctoral programs. What is the current status of doctoral education in Austria, and what might prospective (international) doctoral candidates expect from the doctoral studies in the future?

Gio Hahn: The amendment enabled Austrian Universities to design competitive doctoral programs in the context of the European Higher Education Area with a duration of at least three years. Doctoral education as the first stage of a young researcher's career plays a major role in our country's attractiveness not only in the European research area but also internationally. In order to provide incentives both for universities and for early stage researchers, €32 million will be provided by my ministry to the Austrian Science Fund for the internationally competitive DK Plus ("doctoral schools") program.

bridges: With the "Institute of Science and Technology Austria" (I.S.T. Austria), Austria is creating a new hub of top-level scientific research in Austria.  I.S.T. Austria will also offer PhD programs. What can international scientists and PhD students expect from I.S.T. Austria?

Gio Hahn: Scientists can expect excellent opportunities to perform their research work in an intellectually stimulating environment. They will have complete freedom in the selection of their research activities and a very low administrative burden. The research infrastructure will be second to none in their scientific fields worldwide and tailor-made to their specific needs.

The graduate school at I.S.T. Austria will offer a lively and inspiring atmosphere for outstanding students from all over the world. They will have close contact with a faculty of top researchers and numerous opportunities to broaden their expertise and to collaborate on interdisciplinary teams.

bridges: Keyword "Exzellenzinitiative Wissenschaft" (Initiative for Excellence in Science):  What programs and initiatives are planned

Credit: Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF)
Credit: Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF)
Credit: Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF)

to ensure Austria's attractiveness as a science and research location, and to better position Austria's science system internationally?

Gio Hahn: Excellence in science is a key factor for the development of science itself, for society, and last but not least, for the economy. The Austrian approach of investing in high-quality frontier research through new institutions like the I.S.T. Austria and new programs like Excellence Clusters (large high-quality research groups established for 12 years), as well as new "schools" for PhD groups, represents the necessary response to this need. Together with a number of complementary measures, this initiative will make Austria and Europe more attractive to researchers and, in the long run, also to companies deciding where and how much to invest in R&D.

bridges: The United States is seen as a global leader in innovation. Its model of technology transfer from the scientific lab to the economic market can benefit other countries as a best-practice model. What measures are being taken in Austria to foster the link between research and the economy, in terms of technology transfer?

Gio Hahn: Bridging the gap between science and industry has been one of the major goals for Austria during the last decade. Different instruments have been developed in this respect. The bridging of fundamental research and industrial application, for instance, takes place in COMET Centers and Christian Doppler Laboratories. These research centers have been set up by highly qualified scientists in universities and non-university research institutions in collaboration with companies.

The close cooperation between science and industry within these organizations (established for seven to 12 years) is beneficial for both sides. The companies can make use of new scientific know-how for industrial purposes and thereby enhance their innovative edge and competitiveness. Fundamental research receives valuable new impetus  from the practical experience and can work on a topic with long-term financial security.

bridges: According to the most recent Austrian R&D Report, Austria is well on its way to reaching the targeted R&D investment quota of 3 percent of the GDP by 2010 - citing a figure of 2.54 percent for 2007. What do you anticipate for R&D in Austria after 2010? Also, how can it be ensured that higher funds will lead not only to quantitative but also qualitative gains in scientific research output?

Gio Hahn: In Austria, a comprehensive evaluation of the Austrian research system is currently taking place, as well as a structured discussion (www.forschungsdialog.at) about the main topics for the future of the Austrian knowledge society in the next ten years. I think we should substantially strengthen the potential of the Austrian university system and therefore we need a proportionally stronger growth in basic science than in applied research. As I said before, to me frontier research represents the key factor for Austria´s R&D. My priority for the coming years will be a strong enhancement of the academic system, mainly in the area of research, with the successful formula being more public funding for basic research with a better evaluation of the money spent.

bridges: What kind of general support does the BMWF offer to Austrian scientists or research groups who want to participate in international research projects, or to international scientists interested in pursuing research in Austria?

Gio Hahn: International research cooperation is mainly performed at the institutional level by universities, the Academy of Sciences, and non-university research institutions, and funding for international cooperation is part of their respective budgets from my ministry. In addition, 16 bilateral agreements on scientific-technological cooperation between Austria and her respective partner countries form a sound basis for joint research activities under an official umbrella and often add to regional initiatives. In order to ensure the continuation of our successful participation in the EU research framework program, special financial incentives are provided by my ministry.

A number of scholarship programs managed by the Austrian Science Fund and the Austrian Exchange Service also strengthen international cooperation.  

bridges: Austrian scientists abroad often complain about difficulties in returning to an Austrian research institution or academia after having spent years abroad. These difficulties include the shortage of available positions as well as the lack of feeling welcomed back. What kind of advice do you have for those ex-pats interested in returning to Austria?

Gio Hahn: The issue that you are addressing here is of major importance for the enhancement of Austria's attractiveness for researches and its competitiveness on an international level. Austria should not only be attractive for Austrians who left the country to do research abroad, but also for researchers from other countries. Apart from various information sources for researchers interested in coming to Austria, such as the Researchers' Mobility Portal (www.researchinaustria.info) or the ERA More Network, I would like to emphasize in this context the Universities' autonomy and their - in many cases already successful - efforts to attract excellent researchers internationally. I consider this a vital point for their long-term positioning in a highly competitive research area.

bridges: Austria is promoting its capital, Vienna, as the location for the administrative headquarters of the new European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).  The EIT is part of the EU's revised Lisbon Strategy and focuses on training, research, and innovation to strengthen Europe's competitiveness. In your opinion, what makes Vienna a strong candidate compared to other European cities?

Gio Hahn: Vienna is a center of excellence in the knowledge triangle of education, research, and innovation, combining excellent institutions in education with high-level research facilities and a healthy business environment. What is even more relevant for the headquarters of the EIT, we offer a top-end infrastructure ready to move into.

The most recent development is that Vienna joins forces with Bratislava for a joint bid on the EIT headquarters. We divide the tasks of the EIT into a strategic and a more day-to-day working sphere. The strategic bodies of the EIT (i.e., the Governing Board and the Auditing Unit) will be located in Bratislava, while the pragmatic work will be done in Vienna (through the Executive Committee and the Director). This clear division of labor avoids confusion about who has to do what and keeps bureaucracy and commuting to a minimum. The value added will be to set an example of combining Austrian experience with Slovak dynamism.

bridges: With the European Research Council (ERC ), the EU has created a body comparable to the US National Science Foundation. With a total of €7.5 billion designated for European basic research within the 7th Framework Program (2007-2013), young scientists in particular will be enabled to build their own research teams. How has Austrian basic science made use of the ERC so far?

Gio Hahn: The feedback from the Austrian scientific community underlines the strong interest of highly talented young researchers in establishing or consolidating an independent research team and in starting to conduct independent scientific work in basic research ("frontier research") in Austria or Europe. The ERC grants are seen as an interesting funding opportunity in addition to national excellence funding schemes. For the first call of the ERC Starting Grants, 148 proposals from Austria have been submitted. Compared to other countries, Austria is in the average range with respect to the number of proposals submitted per 1000 researchers. No information on the Austrian participation with regard to the first ongoing call of the Advanced Grants is currently available.

bridges: Do you think there is a risk of grants known Europe-wide from the ERC becoming the "1st choice" for researchers, and national grants of the member states becoming more of a fallback option for researchers whose projects did not qualify for an ERC grant?

Gio Hahn: I do not think so. Austria takes pride in a very attractive choice of research grants for all levels in a scientific career. These grants can be combined according to individual requirements and are very accessible and well accepted. Ideally, the ERC grants and national grants complement each other. As the ERC funding availability does not allow the funding of all proposals meeting the ERC´s threshold of excellence, national excellence funding schemes represent an important option for these researchers. Applications for national excellence grants will be reviewed by internationally recognized high-level experts and international state-of-the-art evaluation procedures. Therefore, these national grants are certainly not "2nd choice."

bridges: Looking back at your tenure of slightly more than a year as minister for science and research, what do you see as the major accomplishments in science and research in Austria during this time? Which goals will you focus on during the coming years?

Gio Hahn: The interview has already discussed the main trends: more funding for basic research, special incentives and programs to foster excellence and human resources, especially for young researchers and women, enhancement of international cooperation, and special measures to enhance the public understanding of science and to increase the interest of the young in science and research. We have also considerably improved the social benefits for students, among others, by increasing the number of grant holders and by increasing the monthly stipend. We are now in the process of further developing the Austrian Universities Act to enable our universities to even better fulfill their manifold responsibilities.

The focus for the months to come will certainly be the positioning of Austria and Europe for the period beyond 2010, both in the context of the Lisbon Strategy/European Research Area and in the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area.



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