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Location, Location, Location?

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Guest Commentaries on the Institute of Science and Technology - Austria
by Maria Christina Binz-Scharf

What appears to be the single most important asset in the New York real estate market should not be nearly as dominant in discussions about a scientific institution: its location. Ever since the Austrian Minister of Education, Elisabeth Gehrer, announced in January that the planned "Institute of Science and Technology - Austria" (ISTA) would be established in Gugging, all other concerns about the ISTA seem to have been relegated to the back burner. The location argument is now seriously endangering the success of the whole project, to the point that its initiator, the physicist Anton Zeilinger, has withdrawn from the project, leaving the ISTA without a scientific director.

{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}So what is wrong with Gugging? While the choice of a former psychiatric hospital might be seen by some as a bad omen for a place whose goal is to produce groundbreaking research, the location can hardly be considered inconvenient or even isolated, as some have argued. At 30 minutes from Vienna, Gugging is certainly closer to a major city than, say, Cornell in the US or INSEAD in France. In addition, there is space for the campus to grow and technology firms to gather around it, space that might be limited if the ISTA were to be built in Vienna. And finally, the country as a whole could benefit from a new location for intellectual capital to develop outside of Vienna. So Gugging's main problem seems to be that it is not Vienna, the location preferred by researchers already working in Vienna.

This is where it becomes apparent that the location question is obfuscating deeper problems with the project. The top-down approach adopted by Ms. Gehrer to create an "overnight" elite institution has alienated many scientists - not only because they were left out of the planning phase, but also because they believe that the rushed implementation schedule is driven more by political motives than by a quest for excellence. Nonetheless, even a flawed ISTA is better than no ISTA, as its creation is likely to shake up the Austrian academic system, allowing for a healthy competition and a break with cronyism. This might not happen overnight, but then again, the project's role model, MIT, took decades to develop from the "Conservatory of Art and Science," as it was founded in 1859, into the institution of excellence that is known today. I want to believe that change is possible. Despite Gugging. Or maybe thanks to it.
The author, Maria Christina Binz-Scharf, is an assistant professor of management in the Economics Department at the City College of New York (CUNY).

Related Sources (in the order in which the topics appear in the article):

"Gugging immer mehr unter Beschuss." Der Standard, 15 February 2006.

Simburger, Franz. "Braucht Österreich eine Elite-Universität?" Ö1-Wissenschaft, 22 April 2005.
http://science.orf.at/news/134759 (19 March 2006).

Vogel, Gretchen. "Austria's bid for an instant MIT meets opposition from researchers." Science 311(5766), 1363.

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