Elisabeth Gehrer: Austrian Minister for Education, Science and Culture

bridges: According to the most recent Austrian R&D Report (FTE Bericht), Austria is on its way to reaching the targeted R&D investment quota of 3 percent of the GDP by 2010. What measures have been taken to ensure the required continuous increase of public R&D investments for the next five years?

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Elisabeth Gehrer: "Current developments in the Austrian innovation system show a satisfactory growth of gross domestic expenditures on R&D. In 2005 the R&D expenditure will be 8 percent greater than in 2004 and will constitute 2.35 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). So - apart from the special cases of Finland and Sweden - Austria is one of the very few countries in Europe that is firmly set on the road to 3 percent. From 2001 through 2005, a crucial contribution to boosting R&D expenditures was the special fund of €1.1 billion - made available by the Austrian government - to provide and promote large R&D programs, investments in human resources, and the cooperation between universities and industry. Yet in spite of the satisfactory trend in recent years, additional efforts will be needed to further increase gross domestic R&D expenditure. For the next five years, further public funds totalling €1 billion have been designated by the government for promoting a variety of activities: e.g. internalizing programs in basic and applied research; strengthening the competence and excellence centers (I have recently begun the project of establishing the first "Elite University" for Sciences in Austria); sharpening the universities' profiles on research and teaching by improving their infrastructure. A great number of measures will focus on further investment in human resources (such as different grants for students and incoming and outgoing researchers). My special concern is promoting women in research and technology to give them equal opportunities in scientific careers. Further fiscal measures (tax exemptions and tax premiums) on the commission research in the enterprise sectors complete the various R&D instruments."

bridges: A number of new initiatives are aimed at doubling the number of female professors in academia. Where do you see the strengths of these new initiatives such as "Professorinnenx2" (="excellentia") and "fFORTE"? How are they more successful than previous attempts at raising the number of women among researchers, scientists, and scholars?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "ad excellentia: A High Potentials program for Austrian universities is calibrated with the University Act 2002 which stipulates the promotion of women and the creation of equal opportunities as duties of the universities. Furthermore, the increase of women in leading positions is legally mandated. The program, excellentia, motivates universities to actively promote women. It is in accordance with the legal regulations and supports them.

This program is designed to increase the number of female university teachers at Austrian universities. It is a financial incentive program through which the employment of female professors is rewarded. This helps to improve the appointment practices of universities in favor of women. Universities that appoint female professors, and thus increase the current number of professorships held by women, receive a financial reward (€33,880).

As of fFORTE, the potential and strength of the initiative fFORTE lies in the fact that it is a collaboration between the Federal Ministry for Education, Science, and Culture; the Ministry for Transport, Innovation, and Technology; the Ministry for Economics and Labor; and the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development. With its three programs - fFORTE-academic, w-fFORTE, and FEMtech-fFORTE - the initiative promotes girls and women on all educational levels (from school to university and the workplace), and contributes to the career enhancement of female scientists with a broad range of supporting activities from training and awareness activities to research and stipends. The initiative is unique in the breadth of its target groups, its research policy, and its effort to combine and coordinate projects and programs of three Austrian Federal Ministries - with the aim of filling identified support-gaps and constantly evaluating the effectiveness of its measures."

bridges:Currently, Austria finds itself in the mid-level rankings of the EU with 6.1 researchers for each 1000 employees. What measures are proposed by the ministry to enable more people to graduate from universities and to offer them an attractive working environment in Austria?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "The contribution of the ministry in raising the number of graduates from universities is twofold: The first contribution is the additional financing of the universities' infrastructures in research and teaching. Excellent lab equipment, modern buildings, modern teaching rooms, and highly qualified scientific staff are the basic essentials for increasing the attractiveness of academic studies and for completing a degree program in a short time. My activities in the next few years will be concentrated in this field: more money for the infrastructure, more money for developing the profile in research and teaching that brings qualified researchers and teachers, and more money in the universities' basic budgets for setting priorities in their autonomous responsibilities. The second contribution is establishing scholarship programs with attractive grants. All young Austrians who are interested in scientific research in their university studies should have the opportunity to graduate through the availability of financial support.

My ministry can only promote an attractive working environment for researchers and scientists in universities by indirect means. Since 2004, all 21 universities have controlled their research and educational activities and measures by full autonomy and self-governance. Therefore, the universities have the responsibility of creating attractive frameworks for more students and for engaging highly qualified researchers."

bridges: Starting January 1, 2006, Austria will hold the presidency of the European Union. This creates a number of challenges for your ministry to face during the six months of the presidency. The European Commission has asked for a doubling of the budget for FP7, compared with the annual spending on FP6. Given the current EU budget discussions, it doesn't seem very likely that this goal will be achieved. Will FP7 be as effective as intended with a smaller budget? Where will the cuts become visible: Will the smaller budget entail the cut of entire program lines, or will the cuts be made across the board?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "Obviously, it is too early now to discuss budget cuts in FP7 as we do not know yet what the overall budget of the European Union is going to be for the next seven years. Once the figure for research is clear, the European Commission will adapt its initial proposal according to the new financial package. Only then will it be in the hands of the Austrian EU Presidency to negotiate budgetary priorities among the EU (25) and with the European Parliament.

I am sure you understand my reluctance to enter into a discussion that is not only premature but also highly speculative."

bridges:How do you see the role of the proposed European Research Council (ERC) in fostering scientific progress in the European Union and also in a global context?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "To start with the end of your question: The ERC provides the answer to a more globalized environment not only in industry-related research and technological development, but also in scientific research. Researchers look for the best conditions for their research and the EU will open up the Framework Program to give them a new opportunity to explore frontier research projects.

Clearly, the ERC is the most significant novelty in FP7 compared with previous Framework Programs. We will have to work hard to get the ERC right from the beginning. The ERC must earn the trust of the scientific community through its highly respected scientific council and through scientific decisions that are based solely on excellence. Independence and autonomy in scientific matters are prerequisites for the success of the ERC.

The current debate is about the institutional setting that links the ERC legally with the European Commission. Commissioner Potocnik has stated firmly that the commission will respect all scientific decisions of the ERC. Nonetheless, some Member States and, as far as I could gather from a recent visit to the European Parliament, most MEPs as well would like to develop the ERC further towards an agency that would be completely independent from the European Commission.

The goal of an independent and autonomous ERC is shared by all partners in the negotiations. I am looking forward to finding the best solution to reach this common objective."

bridges: Since ERC's scientific board has already been selected, the ERC will be established, but most likely with a smaller budget than originally requested. What will the reduced budget mean for the European Research Council?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "Again, I can understand your interest in budgetary issues. However, as the future President of the EU Council, I am not going to open a public debate at this time as to the level of funding that the ERC will need to have a proper start. Perhaps at the end of my term as president, I will be able to answer your question by giving you a precise figure."

bridges: What specific goals does Austria want to achieve during the EU Presidency in the fields of science, research, and education? What would make a successful presidency and what are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "The biggest challenge by far is the negotiations on the 7th Framework Program for Research and Technological Development. We could end up with 21 legal procedures that we would have to handle in parallel to make FP7 start at the beginning of 2007. This is a huge task and requires our greatest attention.

The success of our presidency will depend on our ability to move the whole process of the negotiations forward. Therefore, I consider close relations with the European Parliament to be crucial for identifying potential areas of conflict and compromise as early as possible. Already at this stage, several weeks before January 1, I am meeting regularly with my counterparts in the European Parliament to prepare for our future negotiations. The same effort is needed in relation to the other Member States. Only with the help of all EU (25), the European Parliament, and the European Commission will we be able to launch FP7 on time.

In addition to dealing with FP7, the Austrian EU Presidency will contribute to the annual Lisbon agenda, to the necessary decisions on ITER, to international cooperations, in particular with the Western Balkans and Latin America and the Caribbean, and to the further development of European space policy.

"Quality is the objective" is the overall motto of the Austrian Presidency in the area of education. Questions of quality and quality assurance within a perspective of lifelong learning are priority issues in our discussions at the EU level with regard to the "Bologna" and "Copenhagen process" and in the context of the work program "Education and Training 2010."

We are prepared to contribute to employability and economic growth with our education systems in order to enhance investment in human capital and qualify our citizens for the European knowledge society. But education is much more than employability. It plays a very important role in social cohesion and social inclusion. Our young people need key competencies for the labor market, but they should also acquire socially cohesive attitudes as the events in France, for example, show very clearly. To understand complex global interrelations and then be able to act accordingly should be part of the basic skills. My objective is to encourage active participation of individuals in the knowledge society and to promote mobility and stronger cooperation in Europe to assure quality in higher education.

The presidency will therefore continue the discussion on the European Qualifications Framework and seek adoption of the European Quality Charter for Mobility and the Recommendation of the Council and the European Parliament on key competencies for lifelong learning.

As with R&D, we face similar challenges concerning the negotiations of the Programs. The presidency will work towards the final adoption of the Lifelong Learning Program (2007-2013), with the goal of a timely start at the beginning of 2007. However, the prerequisite for this "best case scenario" is a "Financial Perspective" in December 2005 and the Adoption of the Interinstitutional Agreement on the "Financial Perspective" by the European Council and the European Parliament in February 2006. Austria's major task would then be the final negotiating phase, with regard to the financial aspects of the program. The full political agreement (including the budgetary aspects) on the Lifelong Learning Program could be reached in the Council for Education, Youth, and Culture in May 2006.

We will have to adopt the 2nd Joint Progress Report on February 23, 2006. Unlike the first Interim Report 2004, the 2006 Report will not be submitted to the European Council, as the revised Lisbon-Strategy has outlined a new, more streamlined reporting system.

However, I am thinking of initiating the adoption of a short key message from the Ministers of Education at our Council in February; this should then be submitted to the European Spring Summit in March 2006."

bridges:What challenges do Austrian and European universities face in the context of the Bologna process, which is well under way in many European countries?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "For most universities, the implementation of the Bologna objectives involves not only a structural change from linear diploma studies to the two-tier bachelor/master system (including quality assurance measures, recognition instruments, and others), but also, and more importantly, it comprises a completely new orientation of the university-student relationship. We are moving from an input-oriented, teacher-centered approach to one that is output-oriented and student-centered.

Curricula should be formulated in such a way that the students will know beforehand what qualifications, skills, and competencies they can acquire in their respective fields of study. And teaching will move from frontal to supportive and guiding. The university teacher will no more be a "sage on the stage" but rather a "guide on the side."

The challenge is even more formidable in light of the fact that, in order to create a European Higher Education Area with free mobility of students and teachers alike, the progress toward achieving the goals of the Bologna Process should be as uniform and homogeneous as possible throughout the 45 countries involved."

bridges: Looking back at your tenure as minister for education, science and culture, what do you feel have been the major accomplishments in science and education in Austria during the last decade? Which goals would you still like to see implemented during the remainder of your tenure?

Elisabeth Gehrer: "The great "University reform" based on autonomy and self-governance that was represented in the legal act of the "University Law 2002" and the accompanying measures which guided universities on the way to their full responsibilities beginning in 2004 were the most important activities in the tertiary education sectors. These had the greatest impact on all R&D sectors, because the universities are the main R&D players in Austria.

The restructuring of the Austrian R&D organizations, which was aimed at improving the efficiency of the research system and the performance of the national innovation system, had exactly the same relevance. Among the changes were a newly established advisory board on all R&D matters for the government; a one-stop shop on all funding matters concerning applied research and a National Research Foundation (Nationalstiftung für Forschung,Technologie und Entwicklung); and a national fund to support large and long-term research and technology development in Austria.

The next step will deal with reforming the training institutions for prospective teachers in primary and secondary schools, by changing the academic colleges in universities in accordance with international standards. In the field of R&D, we want to foster our fellowship programs including the PhD, establish a few new research programs and - last but not least - reach consensus on the EU level for the 7th Framework Program."