In the annual report of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the Executive Board provided a very detailed analysis of the evolution of funding activities in 2015. At the annual press conference, these facts were highlighted and an outlook given as to future challenges for the FWF and basic research in Austria. Depending on the perspective taken, 2015 saw exciting, gratifying but also worrying moments for the FWF.
New FWF leadership, amendment to the Research Funding Act and its consequences
In mid-August 2015, Pascale Ehrenfreund, who had been appointed FWF President in September 2013, resigned to assume the chair of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). As the amendment of the Austrian Research and Technology Funding Act (FTFG) was due to become effective on 1 October 2015, the vacant presidency post was not filled immediately but officially advertised in keeping with the amended provisions of the law. Vice-president Christine Mannhalter offered to serve as interim president in order to fulfil the central tasks of the president and ensure legal representation of the institution pending appointment of a new president.
The amended Austrian Research and Technology Funding Act (FTFG) required a re-constitution of the Assembly of Delegates and the Supervisory Board and introduced the position of a chairperson for the Assembly. The delegates elected Josef Glößl, Vice Rector for Research and International Research Collaboration at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, as their chairman. Entrusted with the tasks of advising and supervising the FWF as well as engaging in strategic planning and development, the Supervisory Board had its constitutive meeting in mid-December 2015. The newly elected chairman of the Supervisory Board is Hans Sünkel, professor for theoretical geodesy at the Graz University of Technology and former rector of the same university, as well as former president of Universities Austria.
On the state of research
Strong, free and independent basic research is of seminal importance for a thriving science and business location. The FWF makes a central contribution in building and supporting productive research groups and individual researchers in Austria, who also enjoy high international visibility. Austria’s recent success stories within the European Research Council (ERC) are impressive confirmation of this fact. Ten out of eleven ERC Advanced Grantees received part of their funding from the FWF, and hence can be said to have an “FWF track record”.
“This year’s high number of ERC Advanced Grantees and their connections to the FWF once more go to show the direct link between strong national funding structures and success in raising third-party funds at the European level” notes the interim president of FWF Christine Mannhalter, and adds : “We are extremely happy about Austria’s excellent results”.
On the state of the FWF
Increasingly important as a financing component, third-party funding is also a performance indicator for both research venues and scientists. In this context, the FWF plays an essential role. About 2,300 ongoing research projects receive funding from the FWF, involving more than 4,100 researchers, most of them young scientists. While some of them stay on in research, others will enrich the world of business, culture or society at large through their new and innovative approaches.
“Unfortunately, people often fail to fully appreciate this effect of knowledge transfer and tend to underestimate it drastically”, comments Christine Mannhalter who goes on to say: “Basic research in Austria, and the FWF along with it, make a significant contribution to cultural development, to the advancement of our knowledge-based society, and thus to the creation of value and wealth in Austria.”
Last year, the FWF approved a total of 655 projects with an authorized funding volume of EUR 204.7 million (2014: EUR 211.4 million). This represents a drop in approval volume for the first time since the crisis year 2009. At the same time, the number of applications is continuously on the rise, the increase being particularly big in the fields of international mobility (+ 17.6 %) and career development for women in science and research (+ 16.5 %). Due to these opposite trends as between applications and approvals, the approval rate sank further to settle at 20.3% in 2015 (excluding co-ordinated programmes: special research programmes (SFB), doctoral programmes (DK)).
While currently placing limits on the growing demand for financial support, the funding budget ought to increase commensurately with the demands placed on competitive research funding in general and on funding agencies such as the FWF in particular. Allowing the approval rates to drop below current levels is inefficient in economic terms, given the great deal of resources – particularly human resources – invested in excellent project applications which will ultimately not be given the go-ahead simply for lack of money.
Findings and outlook
In recent years, the FWF has managed to find new partners for initiating and supporting basic research projects. In its “fund-matching programme” the FWF joined forces with the Austrian Länder to raise finance for additional projects in a 50:50 co-funding scheme fed by the Austrian National Foundation for Research, Technology and Development. With a volume of about EUR 2.5 million provided by the Länder, this initiative is on a gratifyingly stable course, Tyrol emerging as a particularly active partner in this context. Another initiative that was continued successfully is the Weiss Prize, endowed by a private foundation, which most recently went to projects in the field of anaesthesiology. A brand-new funding source currently calling for proposals is the ASMET Research Award, also privately endowed, which makes available EUR 300,000 to strengthen metals research in Austria. Within the context of the “Partnership in Research” initiative, the Christian Doppler Research Association provided one million Euros and asked the FWF to launch a call for research projects with the potential to attract business partnerships but which have not yet found a business partner. Although the FWF is making efforts to raise additional funds for science, these partnerships cannot – and are not meant to – replace public money to finance the FWF’s activities.
“Apart from providing urgently needed additional funds for basic research, these initiatives demonstrate a growing awareness of the significance of basic research as a foundation for innovation”, noted Dorothea Sturn, Executive Vice President of the FWF, adding : “We believe in the knock-on effect of these initiatives and hope that the FWF will receive more such endowments in future.”
The FWF is very active in its Open-Access activities which also give it increasing international visibility. Studies by the EU network PASTEUR4OA have shown that the FWF has succeeded in recent years in building one of the six most effective Open Access policies of funding institutions worldwide. Expressed in concrete figures, this means that 83% of the 4,600 peer-reviewed research results listed in the final report for 2015 were open-access publications. The FWF views this as confirmation and encouragement to stay at the forefront in this field.
There will be a new scheme for structured doctoral programmes: after ten years of groundwork and funding, the FWF is ending its doctoral programme activities in their current form. In the future, universities will be called upon to initiate their own structured doctoral programmes and take responsibility for the thematic focus, the creation of concomitant structures and conditions as well as the organisation, funding and quality assurance of such programmes. In close consultation with doctoral-programme speakers, Universities Austria and the supervising authority, a successor programme was designed and submitted in March 2016 to the Österreich-Fonds: as of 2017, the FWF’s new “doc funds” programme will be open for funding applications from doctoral candidates and from research institutions entitled to award doctoral qualifications seeking funding for training-related activities.
“The FWF will continue to be an active partner of researchers, research institutions, policy-makers and other organisations and stakeholders in order to improve Austria’s innovation systems and focus on making the country one of the innovation leaders”, state Christine Mannhalter and Dorothea Sturn jointly and conclude: “Increasing the share of competitive third-party funds raised by the FWF under the ‘FWF brand’ would represent a win-win situation for all players and stakeholders”.
Head of Public Relations and Science Communication