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Six new top Scholars Accepted into the Prestigious START Programme

In a joint press conference on 13 June 2016, Harald Mahrer, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Science, Research and Economy, and Christine Mannhalter, FWF President ad interim, announced this year’s recipient of the Wittgenstein Award and the six exceptional young scholars who were accepted into the START Programme. The awardees and the Chairman of the International START/Wittgenstein Jury, Julius Rebek also attended the press conference.

“On behalf of the FWF I extend most cordial congratulations to this year’s Wittgenstein Award winner, Peter Jonas”, said FWF President ad interim Christine Mannhalter. “Congratulations are also due to the six scholars who have been accepted into the START Programme. They have asserted themselves in a highly competitive environment and convinced the international jury at the hearing - they have every right to be very proud of their achievement”, stated Mannhalter and continued: “Both Wittgenstein and START have shown once again that Austria holds an excellent position in the field of basic research. My best wishes go to all awardees for continued success with their research projects.”

In addition to the presentation of this year’s award winners, Christine Mannhalter presented the evaluation of the Wittgenstein and START Programmes conducted by the Fraunhofer ISI and the Austrian Institute for SME Research (KMU Forschung Austria). “Even we were taken by surprise to see how clearly the positive impact of the two programmes was demonstrated by both quantitative and qualitative analyses. We were also thrilled with the very positive evaluation of the programme management”, reported Christine Mannhalter and explained that the evaluators argued for maintaining both programmes without restrictions in their recommendations.

Wittgenstein 2016

Peter Jonas is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists and particularly renowned for his contributions to an understanding of synaptic transmission in neuronal micro-circuits. His main research interest being synaptic transmission, Peter Jonas investigates how synapses facilitate the communication between neurons. Given that the human brains has about 10 billion neurons and a trillion synapses, understanding how these neuronal micro-circuit function represents one of the greatest challenges of bioscience in the 21st century. With the funding from the Wittgenstein Award, Peter Jonas will be able to address a particularly exciting question in neuroscience: the interrelation between structure and function in synaptic signalling. His goal is to detect the structural changes during synaptic transmission by combining optical stimulation and analysis by electron microscopy. These studies will provide a precise idea of the molecular, structural and functional levels of signalling at excitatory and inhibitory synapses. Peter Jonas intends to find answers to one of the fundamental questions in neuroscience by using an interdisciplinary approach—in parts together with other research groups at IST Austria: the physical appearance of structural correlates of synaptic signalling and synaptic plasticity.

Born in 1961, Peter Jonas graduated in Human Medicine from the University of Giessen in 1987. After working as a postdoc in Giessen and as a research assistant in the group of Professor Bert Sakmann (Nobel laureate for physiology and medicine 1991) at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, he was appointed Associate Professor at the Technical University of Munich. Jonas moved on to become Full Professor and department head at the Institute of Physiology of the University of Freiburg before joining the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) in Klosterneuburg near Vienna. Peter Jonas was the first neuroscientist at IST Austria and thus initiated the successful development of a focus on neuroscience at the Institute. He is a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Academia Europaea, and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Adolf Fick Award and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Award. He is an editorial board member of the renowned Science and Neuron journals. Jonas is a two-time awardee of the prestigious and highly competitive ERC Advanced Grant which he received in the years 2010 and 2016.

The Wittgenstein Award is bestowed on outstanding researchers of any discipline who have already produced exceptional scientific work. Endowed with EUR 1.5 million, the Award supports the awardees in their research, guaranteeing utmost freedom and flexibility in the performance of their research, thereby greatly enhancing their scientific productivity.

In total, 22 scholars were nominated for the 2016 Wittgenstein Award. Based on opinions by international experts, the international START/Wittgenstein jury drew up a shortlist of candidates. The jury is composed of eminent scientists from Europe and beyond in order to warrant the utmost objectivity in the decision-making. Chaired by Julius Rebek, Director of the Skaggs Institute of Chemical Biology and Professor at the Scripps Research Institute, USA, the jury took its decision in a meeting at the end of last week.

“In the name of the jury I would like to congratulate Peter Jonas of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria”, said the jury’s chairman Julius Rebek and continued: “The Wittgenstein Award is a tribute to his many contributions to neuroscience. He has developed experimental models and methods that changed our view of how nerve cells transmit information.”

START 2016

Apart from the Wittgenstein Award, a START Programme grant was awarded to six young researchers selected from among 70 applicants. The START Programme addresses outstanding young researchers from any discipline, giving them long-term and extensive financial security to plan their research. By developing or consolidating their own research groups, START project leaders acquire qualifications for senior scientific positions. START projects are endowed with up to a maximum of EUR 1.2 million each.

Here are the scholars who have been newly accepted into the START Programme in 2016 – in alphabetical order:

Christopher Campbell
„Causes and Consequences of Chromosomal Instability“
Department for Chromosome Biology, Max F. Perutz Laboratories
University of Vienna 

Michael Eichmair

„Isoperimetric study of initial data for the Einstein equations“
Faculty of Mathematics
University of Vienna 

Harald Grobner
„Special L-values and p-adic L-functions“
Faculty of Mathematics
University of Vienna 

Felix Höflmayer
„Tracing transformations in the southern Levant from collapse to consolidation“
Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology
Austrian Academy of Sciences

Nikolai Kiesel
„Thermodynamics by Levitating Optomechanics“
Quantum Optics, Quantum Nanophysics, Quantum Information
University of Vienna

Tracy Northup
„Quantum optomechanics with nanospheres and ions“
Institute for Experimental Physics
University of Innsbruck

START Programme Evaluation

According to the evaluators, the START Programme “addresses all the relevant elements needed to promote scientific excellence and help develop the careers of young researchers.” An essential element of the evaluation was the use of control and comparison groups in order to facilitate a clear assessment of the programme’s impact. The evaluators concluded that (a)  the expectations grantees had in the programme were met to a high degree; (b) the scientific output of the grantees increased continuously at a faster pace and in a more comprehensive and visible manner than that of the control group; (c) the grantees were better integrated in international networks than the control group and had more publications in international networks; (d) many grantees were able to use the experience gathered in their projects for establishing new co-operation and acquiring new projects, and most of them were strongly engaged in science communication. 

One of the objectives of the START Programme is to enable the grantees to become established in the Austrian science system. It has been shown that the young project leaders are consistent in their assessment of START being the career development instrument of the FWF.

Wittgenstein Award Evaluation

The evaluation has shown unequivocally that the Wittgenstein Award is an ideal instrument in the FWF’s portfolio to support unconventional cutting-edge research. According to the evaluators, the Award makes a significant contribution to (a) developing new methods, (b) supporting interdisciplinary research and (c) opening up new research vistas. 

Wittgenstein awardees mostly use their funding to integrate young researchers in their groups. In recent years, more than 100 scholars completed their PhD in the context of Wittgenstein projects, and some of them were able to use their work in these projects as a stepping stone for their scientific career.

Link to press kit (in German)(pdf, 5.0MB)
Evaluation of the START Programme and the Wittgenstein Award


Marc Seumenicht
Head of Public Relations and Science Communication

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