On the State of Scientific Research in Austria – an Extended Pause at the Crossroads

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / OpEds & Commentaries
By Christoph Kratky, et al.

Logo: FWFThe Austrian Science Fund (FWF) represents Austria's central funding organization for basic research. Its mission is to support the ongoing development of Austrian science and basic research at a high international level. The FWF's annual reports always include a section that features the FWF's assessment of the state of scientific research in Austria. Given the dynamic developments in the research landscape, the reports' headings frequently contain metaphors relating to roads and travel. In the 2010 report, the section was entitled "A pause at the crossroads," and ultimately referred to fears that Austrian research policy might choose the wrong road from that point.

Thanks to numerous announcements and declarations of intent during the past year, the signs now point to a more favorable situation and there is, indeed, evidence of positive development. To date, little has actually been implemented but – at least for the moment – one can allay concerns about choosing the wrong path. Although Austrian research policy makers have apparently managed to avoid that mistake, true relief can only set in once these announcements and intentions have actually led to concrete measures and actions.

What, then, are the current prospects for research in Austria? What has happened in the last year, and what can we expect for the future?


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An eventful year at the international level

Among the wide variety of activities undertaken by the European Commission, it is certainly important to highlight the importance of the Horizon 2020 program as the most significant signal for research at the European level. These follow-up activities to the 7th Framework Programme will be launched in 2014, and the available funds will be increased by 50 percent to a total budgeted funding of approximately €80 billion. The initiative is based on a comprehensive approach to funding research and innovation in Europe which combines all of the activities under the current Framework Programme, the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP), and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). The realization of a European Research Area, along with the accompanying measures such as Joint Programming and the European Research Infrastructure Roadmap, is among the main pillars of the European Commission's strategy.

The European Research Council (ERC), which is responsible for basic research and operates according to principles similar to those of the FWF, has been lauded as a resounding success, and its funding is to be increased by 77 percent (to more than €113 billion). In this way, the Commission has significantly expanded its commitment to basic research, and scientists and researchers in Austria have made efficient use of this expansion. Austria has enjoyed remarkable success in ERC programs: With respect to the acquisition of ERC Grants, Austria is in seventh place throughout Europe (adjusted for population), ahead of classic benchmark countries such as Finland and Norway, as well as Germany, France, and Ireland. Looking at the success rate of applications, Austria is in fourth place. However, the country that took first place – Switzerland – outperformed Austria by a factor of three in this respect, indicating that there is certainly room for improvement.

The FWF's role also clearly manifests itself in the development and expansion of this potential: With the exception of successful ERC applicants who come from abroad to carry out research projects, a majority of ERC grantees have extensive track records across all of the FWF's funding programs. The grant recipients include principal investigators from FWF stand-alone projects, priority research programs, mobility programs, programs to support women in science and research, as well as the START program and the Wittgenstein Award. ERC grantees have headed nearly 200 FWF projects, a figure that aptly and impressively demonstrates the international competitiveness of top-notch research sponsored by the FWF. The success of Austria's researchers in ERC programs is also significant because they enlarge the FWF's financial latitude for the START program, thus enabling the FWF to advance the upper echelons of Austria's research community even more efficiently.

International CooperationAnother significant development for the organization and coordination of basic research at the European level is the ongoing establishment of Science Europe, the new umbrella organization for European institutions that fund basic research. By 2015, this organization will have replaced the European Science Foundation (ESF), which has existed for over 30 years. Science Europe will restructure various European funding activities through measures such as the establishment of a European Grant Union as the national funding agencies' contribution to a European Research Area. The ESF's funding instruments, especially those aiming to promote large transnational projects, will have to be shifted to alternative paths. In this context, the ERA-Net concepts will certainly find application; at the same time, direct agreements between national organizations for funding cross-border research projects (such as the Lead Agency Procedure) will also be implemented. The model for this form of cooperation was essentially developed in the D-A-CH region by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the FWF, and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), and is increasingly being emulated elsewhere. The underlying principle is that quality assurance is coordinated internationally and focused within one research funding agency, with each partner organization funding only projects that are carried out in its respective country. In this way, it is possible to support international and transnational research cooperation more efficiently.

In summary, increased investments in basic research, as well as the further expansion and facilitation of transnational research activities, are the most significant trends for basic research at the European level. The rising number of international projects in the FWF's funding activities also shows that the Austrian scientific community is seizing the opportunities resulting from these trends, and obviously, these funding possibilities are well suited to researchers' needs. In this regard, the FWF hopes that it will be able to continue funding overhead costs for international cooperation projects as well.

National strategies and announcements

fti strategieAt the national level, the year 2011 will be remembered as the year of commitments and announcements. After extensive preparations, in February 2011 the Austrian federal government presented its long-awaited research, technology, and innovation (RTI) strategy. Throughout nearly 50 pages, the document impressively summarizes the preparatory work and analyses, bundling them into a compact package of measures supported by the entire federal government's commitment. Fortunately, basic research is accorded especially high priority in this central strategy paper, and key passages from the document match the FWF's judgments and demands. A number of core statements from the strategy are discussed below:

"The proportion of basic research financing as a share of GDP was 0.44% in Austria in 2007, lower than in important OECD benchmark countries."

This is a situation that has been criticized by the FWF and other decisive stakeholders in basic research for years. In the opinion of the FWF, any measures to increase funding for basic research should be welcomed without reservation.

"The share of publicly funded research in Austrian corporate research is 10.3%; the OECD average is 6.6%."; "From 2002 to 2007, public expenditure on corporate research grew ... by 48%, whereas expenditures for academic research ... increased ... by 25%."; "We want to increase investments in basic research by 2020 to the level of leading research nations."

In line with international trends, it is essential that policy makers clearly commit to placing substantially higher emphasis on basic research than in the past. The evidence supporting this strategy is more than convincing. The Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development (RFTE) has also repeatedly recommended investments in basic research, and the specific amount of funding required for this purpose was calculated by Andreas Schibany and Helmut Gassler in their study on the benefits and effects of basic research.

"Increase funding of basic research while simultaneously increasing the share of funds that are awarded in competitive processes"; "The university financing model should be reformed. Research financing should become more competitive and project-based."; "Expand third-party financing of university research via Austrian Science Fund (FWF) projects evaluated in competition, with lump-sum coverage of 20% of overheads."

The FWF wholeheartedly welcomes these planned measures and they clearly address key concerns that have been voiced repeatedly by the FWF. Regarding the increase in the share of funding awarded to universities through competitive procedures, the universities' performance agreements already provide explicitly for an increase in the acquisition of third-party funding. In certain respects, the FWF's ideas go well beyond the objectives of the Austrian RTI strategy: From the FWF's standpoint, the long-term objective in project funding should be full-cost coverage instead of lump-sum overhead payments.

"Implement an Austrian excellence initiative, by creating up to ten Clusters of Excellence by 2020."

The FWF also regards this objective as an encouraging signal. An initial blueprint for clusters of excellence – including a specific funding plan – was already presented several years ago (in 2005, to be precise). According to the FWF's proposal, a minimum of €55 million will be necessary to launch the program with only half of the ten clusters envisaged in the RTI strategy; within five years, the program costs will amount to more than €200 million. These highly impressive sums are in line with the ambitious objectives of Austria's RTI strategy. In this context, the vast disparity between these objectives and what is feasible is especially striking: In the budget negotiations, there have been no signs that such a program might be funded to an extent even approaching those levels. Yet, support for top-notch research in Austria in these areas would be an indispensable investment in the country's future.

The fact that basic research in Austria is mainly carried out at universities is commonly considered a unique characteristic of the Austrian science and research system. Naturally, some outstanding basic research is also conducted outside the universities: This is impressively demonstrated not only by the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria, but also by a number of institutions within the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW). The far-reaching reforms to be implemented by the ÖAW raise expectations of exciting developments in this segment of the research landscape. However, the bulk of basic research is still largely carried out at Austrian universities, meaning that developments in the higher education sector are of crucial significance. The reform of Austria's institutions of higher education has recently experienced a marked increase in activity: Work on the Austrian development plan for higher education is progressing rapidly [for more information on the Austrian Hochschulplan, the new strategy for Austrian institutions of higher education, please read the interview with the Austrian Minister for Science and Research, Karl Heinz Toechterle, in this issue], and the key points of the plan were presented at the end of 2011. This plan is also based on extensive preparatory work, such as the higher education partnership dialog, the "University 2025" perspective paper prepared by the Austrian Science Board, and the analysis prepared by high-ranking international experts (Loprieno, Menzel and Schenker-Wicki: "Development and Dynamisation of the Austrian Higher Education Landscape: An External Perspective").

With regard to research, this expert report contains a number of suggestions that are fully congruent with the federal government's RTI strategy as well as the stated objectives of the FWF – such as the need to promote basic research, the accompanying need to increase funding for the FWF, and the establishment of clusters of excellence. As for the structure of funding, the report proposes that instruction should be funded on the basis of enrolment, and that basic funding for research should be increased with a strong competitive component, which would be covered by providing the FWF with the corresponding budget. In order to improve the governance of the university system, the report recommends setting up new coordination and advising bodies, among other measures.

Compared to this expert report, the main points of the higher education development plan are largely process-oriented, with little specification of content. As one might expect of such a comprehensive plan, the objectives are stated at a very high level of aggregation and will be achieved in four specific areas: coordination measures/coordination in research and instruction; development plan; large-scale research infrastructure/international agendas; and capacity-based university financing.

The development plan for higher education only provides specific figures in an overview of how the envisaged €1 billion in additional higher education funding should be allocated. According to the plan, institutions of higher education (universities and universities of applied sciences) are to be provided with €330 million in additional funding per year from 2013 to 2015. The FWF is also explicitly mentioned as an important means of awarding funds on a competitive basis. Negotiating these additional funds undoubtedly represents a major success on the part of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research as well as an absolute necessity for the financing of Austria's universities. However, as many have pointed out in general discussions on the topic, the additional funding will not enable any major leaps forward. The additional amount is not sufficient to enhance Austria's international competitiveness or to ensure the optimal quality of instruction and research (as envisaged in the development plan), nor has funding been increased visibly and significantly for the "competitive component" (i.e., the FWF and other agencies). Research is not accorded a central role in these plans, and in cases of doubt – that is, when budget cuts are necessary – the research institutions are likely to favor institutional ties over competitive allocation agendas. This is another respect in which the announcements in strategy papers diverge from actual measures and the funds available.

The Austrian Finance Minister's October 2011 speech on the federal budget for 2012 provided little encouragement that this discrepancy might be remedied in the near future. In this context as well, "investing in the future in the areas of family, education, research and the environment" was heralded as a high priority, but this has not been translated into additional research funding.

Consequently, the FWF's current budget is not consistent with the tasks the funding agency should perform according to expert opinions, the RTI strategy, and the development plan for higher education. On the contrary, the FWF's budget is not even sufficient to cover the target amounts already set for third-party funding in the performance agreements of universities and research institutions. Until 2013, the funds allocated to the FWF by the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research will remain fixed in nominal terms, meaning that they will decrease in real terms. In its multiyear budget plan, the FWF has provided for an increase of approximately 10 percent in 2014; however, this amount does not even match inflation over the past five years. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that funding contributions from the Austrian National Foundation for Research, Technology, and Development, which have accounted for a considerable share of the FWF's budget in the past, are difficult to predict and have tended to decrease in recent years. Given the constantly rising number of applications, researchers have less and less room to maneuver, and performing the FWF's duties under the Austrian RTI strategy seems like an increasingly distant prospect. As one can easily calculate, a significantly larger endowment would be necessary to fulfill the tasks envisaged for the FWF.

Conclusion

It is clear that ample time remains until the target year 2020. However, it is equally clear that the later the necessary measures are taken, the less probable will be the attainment of various goals (including those defined in the RTI strategy). Even programs that have already been designed, such as clusters of excellence, require considerable lead times for implementation, while other programs (e.g., full-cost models) also require significant time to show their full effects. We can only hope that policy makers are aware of this fact and that implementation begins sooner than the current developments suggest.

Pauses are quite useful when they are used to reflect and plan carefully. We have reflected and planned successfully, and a pause is certainly better than rushing down the wrong path. Thanks to this pause for thought, the signs are favorable, but we cannot entirely abandon our reservations. If these signs are not followed soon by concrete actions, all the plans and announcements will be relegated to the realm of a mere intellectual exercise, and any chances that the Austrian science and research system will emerge unscathed from the general crisis – and remain competitive at the international level – will be eradicated.

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The above article was co-authored with Johann Eder, Herbert Gottweis, Christine Mannhalter, and Dorothea Sturn and was first published in the 2011 annual report of the FWF.

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