The Institute of Science and Technology Austria: an Interview with Scientific Director Olaf Kübler

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / Feature Article

The I.S.T Austria Campus

I.S.T. Austria, the acronym for the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, has been launched in Klosterneuburg, which is located on the northwest boundary of Vienna. It is the brainchild of Prof. Anton Zeilinger, the Austrian physicist who received worldwide attention for first achieving quantum teleportation. Prof. Zeilinger first mentioned the idea of establishing a new, outstanding Institute of Basic Research at the 2002 Technology Forum in Alpbach, Austria.

Four years later, in May 2006, the I.S.T. Austria was finally established by an Austrian federal law that defined it as a fully independent institution, governed only by its own Board of Trustees. For the next 10 years, the Austrian Federal Government has committed to €195 million in funding, as well as matching any funds acquired by I.S.T. Austria from secondary sources (limited, however, to a total of €95 million over the 10 years).

In addition to this financial support from the Austrian Federal Government, the Bundesland (equivalent to a US state) of Lower Austria, where I.S.T. Austria is located, agreed to invest €80 million in infrastructure and buildings, and to support facility management with €3 million per year.

bridges spoke with Prof. Olaf Kübler, the chairman of the Scientific Board of I.S.T. Austria.

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Prof. Kübler, you are moving from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), where you served as president and where you've established a tenure track system during your presidency. What made you decide to join the I.S.T. Austria endeavor?

Prof. Olaf Kübler

In September 2004, Prof. Anton Zeilinger convened a group of international scientists and science administrators to deliberate and advise on his vision of creating an academic institution in Austria that aspires to the highest international standards of excellence. I participated and was intrigued.
After an auspicious beginning, problems and resistance began to evolve, until the Federation of Austrian Industry relaunched the process with determination and energy. In April 2006, an international team of scientists - comprising Chair Haim Harari, president of the Weizmann Institute from 1988 to 2001, and members Hubert Markl, president of the Max Planck Society from 1996 to 2002, as well as myself, president of ETH Zürich from 1997 to 2005 - was commissioned to compile a report and recommend steps towards the establishment of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.
Our joint effort was such a positive experience and created such commitment to the concept that I found it impossible to resist the invitation of Haim Harari to continue with him in the endeavor. My experience at ETH Zurich of starting two whole new departments, eventually accredited as fully functioning organizational entities in 2004 and 2007, added to the challenge. I.S.T. Austria can be done: with imagination, judgment, and determination, good organization, and relentless constructive effort by differing, faithful partners - and a bit of luck.

What is the current status of preparing I.S.T. Austria to be up and running, in terms of human resources and the (construction) site at Maria Gugging?

Haim Harari gave a comprehensive answer in a recent interview, I quote:
"The campus of I.S.T. Austria at Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, will be fully at the disposal of the Institute only towards the end of 2007, when the last patients at the current hospital are due to leave the site. Only then can construction and renovation start, completing the first facilities towards the fall of 2008. That is also the earliest point in time for scientists whose experimental needs do not require special elaborate construction and investments.
In the meantime we must deal with numerous necessary issues which must precede the arrival of the first scientists, ranging from a master plan for the entire campus to rules regarding intellectual property, and from negotiating with the Austrian government regarding the schedule of funding (the total sums are guaranteed by law) to the planning of public lectures, seminars, and symposia. We are also recruiting the first people in charge of topics such as construction, academic affairs, human resources, and similar functions, and raising voluntary contributions from Industry. All of these items are currently being pursued by the small staff led by the initial administrator Dr. Gerald Murauer, with the help of the Executive committee."

Have some of the areas of research already crystallized and the respective research groups been chosen, or is everything still open to researchers interested in applying for a position at I.S.T. Austria?

Not substantially beyond the general statements made in our report. The Scientific Board has its first plenary meeting on July 12, 2007, where proposals for "general research areas" constitute the agenda. But identifying research areas for I.S.T Austria is by no means sufficient. The main focus is on exceptionally gifted scientists who stand for and define these research areas. This will be the true test for the scope and judgment of all of us on the Scientific Board and for subsequent Search Committees.

What will distinguish the I.S.T. Austria from other (international) research institutions? Are there any particular incentives for researchers to come to Austria - such as research conditions, or career outlook?

We debated this question in depth when we wrote the report. We found it most helpful to resort to successful role models for shaping our ideas. We regard IMP, the Research Institute for Molecular Pathology in Vienna, opened in 1988, or EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, inaugurated in 1978, as sterling examples. Many of the new Max Planck Institutes in the former German Democratic Republic are good recent models, although smaller than the target size of I.S.T. Austria. We have asked our Max Planck colleagues for their experience. They have been generous in sharing it with us, and in offering their help.
One important qualitative difference between Max Planck and I.S.T. Austria is to be borne in mind: the Austrian law also makes the institute into a graduate school with the right to award its own doctoral degrees, in contrast to the situation in Germany.
A particular incentive to come to Austria is to start a totally new enterprise. Laboratories may be tailored to the needs and wishes of the first scientists. They may assemble a group of colleagues and friends from different disciplines to launch a larger comprehensive research area - with high potential and risk. The law has been crafted in a spirit to encourage, not to impede, such bold approaches.

How can an interested scientist apply for a research position at I.S.T. Austria? Are there any general requirements in terms of field of work, research experience, or other qualifications?

We intend to offer both tenure-track positions and positions with tenure. Highly qualified scientists in the field of natural and technical sciences should send a letter with their c.v. and list of publications to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . They will be informed as soon as a suitable position becomes available. For further information and advice I recommend getting in touch with Dr. Laurenz Niel of the I.S.T. Austria office.

I.S.T Austria has declared their intention to put a strong international focus on its activities. How do you plan to recruit the "best and the brightest" from all parts of the world and what cooperations with universities and research institutions do you envision?

I.S.T. Austria means to do excellent science. This implies recruiting the "best and the brightest" without any restrictions, and this welcoming spirit must be evident everywhere and to anybody in touch with the institution. My former institution, ETH Zurich, has a remarkable track record with close to two-thirds of the faculty recruited from outside Switzerland. Once such a track record is established, the word will spread. Recruiting will become easier after the first excellent appointments succeed and make international impact - a good reason to search with extra determination and range.
Scientific cooperation is most productive if established as a bottom-up initiative among scientists. We will nurture such initiatives, together with our colleagues from Austrian universities and interested research institutions elsewhere. It would be counterproductive to fix on particular institutions from an administrator's perspective.

What will the future Ph.D. program at I.S.T Austria look like? In which fields will it be possible to obtain a doctoral degree, and how many Ph.D. students will I.S.T Austria be able to accommodate?

It seems premature to answer in specific terms. The Ph.D. program will follow best principles and practices worldwide. Ultimately, its success will depend on the thesis supervisors and thesis committees at I.S.T. Austria.

An ever-hot topic in research is the question of intellectual property. What is I.S.T. Austria's strategy for how to best handle this question between the scientists and the institution?

We are compiling and studying the rules and regulations of other relevant institutions, and we intend to build on their experience. But, as you say, this is an ever-hot topic and likely to remain that way.

Are there any particular measures planned by I.S.T. Austria to facilitate technology transfer?

Part of the campus has been set aside for start-up companies and translational endeavors. We will encourage technology transfer and will build up dedicated support staff. Also, fund-raising from the private sector is part of our strategy, for regular basic research as well as for technology transfer.

During your tenure as director of the ETH Zurich, you once said: "We want to be among the top 10 research institutes in the world." Where do you see the I.S.T. Austria 10 years from now?

I have expressed this goal as a stimulus to my former institution. All available rankings show we have come close but missed the pronounced goal. The "top ten" appears to be composed of a fairly unassailable "establishment," and it takes time to rise through the rank(ing)s and stay, once one has reached the top 50.
Each ranking has to take into account the relative size of the ranked institutions. I.S.T. Austria will be much smaller than the leading research universities in the United States. Therefore, we aspire to be among the best, not in the whole world of science, but in specific research areas. I.S.T. Austria needs to develop a specific culture and profile it will be known for, and thus define its role and reputation in the world.