An ambitious pact for research and the future is indispensable for Austria in order to become a European leader in the fields of education, research and innovation. The potential and willingness certainly exist. There is consensus across parties and institutions that Austria’s universities and research institutions need to be strengthened and that competitive funding for quality-driven basic research needs to be massively extended. What is needed now is a joint far-sighted approach and political courage in order to translate affirmations of willingness into action. The “Science & Research” group within the “Future” cluster, one of the coalition negotiation clusters, would be ideally placed to set a milestone here.
A great deal of research, but not enough basic research
At 3.14 percent of the GDP, we stand second in Europe after Sweden when it comes to investments in research and development (R&D). However, while Switzerland and the Netherlands invest roughly a third of their R&D budget in basic research, this field accounts for less than a fifth of the budget in Austria. And the gap is widening: In 2007, EUR 120 million went to the FWF and indirect research funding. Ten years later, EUR 190 million are allocated to the FWF and 530 million to the ‘research premium’. We need a more balanced situation for the ‘research premium’ to make a genuine and sustainable impact.
At present, Austria is a net exporter of science. Far more excellent scholars leave the country, frequently for good, than we are able to attract. Only 42 percent of the Austrians who succeed in obtaining one of the prestigious ERC Grants from the European Research Council conduct their project at a domestic research institution. By way of comparison: in Sweden and the Netherlands this figure is over 80 percent. Hence, many of our brightest minds leave the country and boost research and innovation in Germany, Switzerland or the USA.
In the future, competition for the greatest and most creative talents is going to become even tougher – and it will be global. Austria is one of the countries with the highest quality of life worldwide, blessed with natural beauty, cultural diversity and domestic security. It is, however, also marked by massive competitive disadvantages: insufficient investment in research infrastructure, the absence of standardized university access management, too little funding for basic research and poor career prospects in research. Top scientists, in particular, are drawn to places where they find optimum conditions for their research, including funding for their research group. If the FWF has only half or even a quarter of the funds that research funders in Germany, the Netherlands or Switzerland have at their disposal, then the most talented and creative individuals will move to these countries – for instance to cities like Essen, Maastricht or Berne. What a loss that would be in terms of ideas and motivation for our own research location!
We need a clear commitment to an alliance for top-level research. At the heart of this alliance we need a secure multi-annual planning horizon for funding agencies and research institutions, with growing budgets, and a broadly-based excellence programme for Austria. This excellence programme needs to focus both on supporting young scientists and on helping universities and research institutions to sharpen their scientific profiles with a clear international orientation.
That would give research and teaching at Austrian universities international visibility and further boost complementarity between universities and applied-science universities. Whatever shape a future Ministry of Science and Research takes, scientific research and universities need to be addressed under one roof. This system has proven its worth.
Austrian Alliance of Science Organisations
The Austrian Alliance of Science Organisations is a platform for regular debates on science policy issues. The members of the Alliance are Thomas Henzinger (Institute of Science and Technology Austria), Antonio Loprieno (Austrian Science Board), Helga Nowotny (ad personam), Klement Tockner (Austrian Science Fund FWF), Oliver Vitouch (Universities Austria) and Anton Zeilinger (Austrian Academy of Sciences). Klement Tockner from the FWF currently holds the chair of the Alliance.
Head of Public Relations and Science Communication