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Eight outstanding young researchers accepted into the prestigious START Programme – New action plan unveiled for Austrian research.

Vienna, June 16, 2014 – At a joint press conference today, Austrian Federal Minister of Science, Research and Economy Reinhold Mitterlehner and FWF President Pascale Ehrenfreund announced this year's Wittgenstein Award winner and the eight outstanding young researchers accepted into the FWF's START Programme. In the next five to six years, these nine researchers will have a total of EUR 10.5 million at their disposal for their research efforts.

"These prizes are not just a prestigious and high-profile form of recognition for outstanding scholars; they also form the basis for generating new and valuable insights in basic research. The generous grant amounts will provide the researchers with a maximum of freedom to develop their ideas," noted Mitterlehner in congratulating the 2014 grant recipients. At today's press conference, Mitterlehner also announced his ministry's new action plan for the Austrian research area as a means of ensuring a more dynamic implementation of the federal government's Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) strategy. "In the medium term, we aim to join the ranks of the world's innovation leaders, and this objective is not just a question of public-sector funding. We also have to ensure that the existing structures are suitable, and we have to create the appropriate incentives for greater private-sector investment in research," said Mitterlehner. At 2.88 per cent, Austria's R&D intensity (i.e. research and development spending as a percentage of GDP) is the fifth-highest in the EU, but Austria is only in tenth place in the Innovation Union Scoreboard. By contrast, Germany spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on research and development, but was ranked seven places higher than Austria in terms of innovation. In the first step, the ministry defined six focus areas: Profile development and efficiency of the research location; Career opportunities in science and research; Cooperation between science and the business world; Private-sector funding & dialog between science and society; Development of the humanities, social sciences and cultural studies; and Austrian research in the European context. A package of policy measures will be completed in early 2015.

FWF President Pascale Ehrenfreund added, "On behalf of the FWF, I'd like to congratulate Wittgenstein Award winner Josef Penninger on being accepted into an elite circle of leading researchers in Austria. I'd also like to congratulate the eight outstanding young researchers selected for the START Programme. Their project proposals were chosen among nearly 100 candidates, once again providing clear evidence of Austria's strength in basic research. We have enormous potential, and we need to make even greater efforts to enhance that potential."

Josef Penninger, who has been the Scientific Director of the Austrian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA) since its establishment, was born in Gurten, Upper Austria in 1964 and began his studies of medicine after graduating from school in 1982. After earning his doctorate in 1990, he received an FWF Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship to study as a postdoctoral fellow at the Ontario Cancer Institute, after which he taught and conducted research at the University of Toronto's Department of Immunology and Medical Biophysics as an Assistant Professor from 1994, an Associate Professor from 1999, and as a Full Professor from 2002 onward. In 2002, Penninger accepted the invitation to establish and head the IMBA in Austria. He has also maintained his ties to Canada and the University of Toronto as an Adjunct Professor (since 2004). In the same year, he became a Professor of Genetics at the University of Vienna in addition to serving as Scientific Director at the IMBA.

Penninger is an enormously prolific researcher and his work has led to several breakthrough achievements. Two of his major accomplishments are especially worthy of note: Penninger and his team succeeded in establishing a system of yeast genetics for pluripotent mammalian stem cells. To this end, scientists in his laboratory generated haploid embryonic stem cells in order to develop systems for the mutagenesis of entire genomes. This achievement not only marked a significant paradigm shift in biology, but also yielded a technology which has the potential to revolutionise current practices in functional genetics. Another highly significant area of achievement is Penninger's work on the topic of "Receptor Activator of NF-ΚB Ligand" (RANKL), ranging from an initial genetic validation to novel approaches to medical treatment. Thanks to Penninger's scientific accomplishments, we have known for several years that RANKL is linked to literally all of the symptoms associated with osteoporosis. That his discoveries also yielded promising approaches to the treatment of breast cancer and to controlling metastasis formation in bones is an excellent example of serendipity in scientific research.

Penninger's research in the field of haploid stem cells has the potential to revolutionise the field of functional genomics; moreover, his ground-breaking insights with regard to the fundamental physiology of metabolic processes, the connection to the biology of mammary glands, our understanding of the processes underlying bone metastasis, and his work in breast cancer research are clear indications of the enormous productivity of Penninger and his research teams. His work has made a decisive contribution to opening up completely new fields of medical treatment.

In the future, Penninger plans to focus on investigating the power of haploid stem cells – i.e. stem cells which contain only one set of chromosomes – and to continue developing this approach in terms of technology. The funds from the Wittgenstein Award will certainly make a significant contribution to his efforts in this field.

The Wittgenstein Award is Austria's largest and most prestigious research prize, and it has been awarded by the FWF since 1996. Wittgenstein recipients are provided with a budget of up to EUR 1.5 million for (further) research work over a period of five years. The Wittgenstein is a "dry prize", meaning that the funds are only available for the scholar's intended research.

Approval recommendations are compiled by the International START/Wittgenstein Jury on the basis of peer reviews from expert scholars abroad. The jury comprises a number of renowned scientists from outside of Austria in order to ensure a maximum of objectivity in decision-making. The Jury convened toward the end of last week and was chaired by Jan Ziolkowski, Professor of Medieval Latin and Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection at Harvard University.

In addition to the Wittgenstein winner, eight top-notch young researchers were chosen among 96 applicants for the START Programme. The START grant is the FWF's largest and most renowned award for outstanding young researchers. On the basis of their scientific track records, recipients are given the opportunity to plan their research work on a long-term basis (six years) with sufficient financial security and to establish, expand and lead their own research teams independently. All grant recipients are subjected to an interim evaluation after three years. Each START project is endowed with up to EUR 1.2 million.

The award recommendation was prepared by the International START/Wittgenstein Jury on the basis of peer reviews from expert scholars based outside of Austria. The jury comprises a number of renowned scientists from outside of Austria in order to ensure a maximum of objectivity in award decisions. The jury convened last week and was chaired by Jan Ziolkowski, Professor of Medieval Latin and Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection at Harvard University.

The researchers chosen for the START Program in 2014 are listed below (in alphabetical order):

Markus Aichhorn
"Topological states of matter from first principles", Institute for Theoretical Physics – Computational Physics, Graz University of Technology

Sigrid Neuhauser
"Hi-Phy: Phytomyxid host interactions", 
Institute of Microbiology, University of Innsbruck 

Bettina Bader
"Beyond Politics: Material Culture in Second Intermediate Period Egypt and Nubia", Institute for Egyptology, University of Vienna

Manuel Schabus
"Consciousness research across healthy vigilance states and disorders of consciousness", Department of Psychology, University of Salzburg

Mathias Beiglböck
"Robust Hedging and Optimal Transport", Faculty of Mathematics, University of Vienna

Karin Schnass
"Optimisation Principles, Models & Algorithms for Dictionary Learning", Faculty of Mathematics, University of Innsbruck

Alexander Grüneis
"Quasiparticle dynamics and optical properties of designer van-der-Waals solids", Institute of Chemistry, University of Graz 

René Thiemann
"Certifying termination and complexity proofs of programs", Institute of Computer Science, University of Innsbruck 

Both the START Program and the Wittgenstein Award are open to all scientific disciplines. These two programs have been carried out since 1996.

Austrian Science Fund FWF
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Tel.: (+43-1) 5056740 - 8111
Mobile: (+43 664) 858 87 97

Vienna, June 16, 2014

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