Bringing researchers together, delving deeper into focuses, and jointly exploring new research fields: The Special Research Programmes of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) leverage synergies and create regionally based research networks. In the latest call for proposals, 26 consortia submitted a pre-proposal to the FWF for international peer review—six were selected to submit a full proposal, and four special research programmes will now receive a total of €14.8 million in funding over the next four years. Of these four, two special research programmes are coordinated by researchers from TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology) and one by researchers of the University of Vienna (Max Perutz Labs) and one by researchers from Graz University of Technology. Also participating in the programmes are teams from many other research institutions such as the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA), Johannes Kepler University Linz, the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA), as well as teams of the German project partners.   
“Researchers develop different focuses over the course of their careers. Special research programmes consolidate and pool existing expertise, with the aim of building new networks. This bringing together of different skills and knowledge not only creates added value for all participants, but in the end also results in greater gains in knowledge”, says FWF President Christof Gattringer, congratulating the newly funded researchers. 

“I would like to point out, however, that there would be even more potential for special research programmes in Austria. We currently find ourselves in a position where we cannot fund all the excellent consortia due to a lack of budget. For the time being, the funding from the National Foundation has run out. Whether or not we will be able to fund further special research programmes in the future depends on the proposed Fonds Zukunft Österreich, which is not a done deal yet”, reflects Gattringer on the uncertain future of this funding programme. 

Special research programmes as the springboard to world-class research

Through this programme, the FWF aims to foster the creation of excellent research networks. It gives Austrian research institutions the opportunity to retain promising researchers for the long term and to strengthen their own research profile. Great emphasis is placed on teamwork, as up to 15 researchers join together to form one special research programme. The aim is to create research networks in line with international standards at one or more locations, and the focus is on multi- or interdisciplinary research topics. 

Since the programme was introduced in 1993, the FWF has awarded €400 million to 55 special research programmes. An evaluation completed in 2020 confirmed the long-term positive effects of the funding programme and its significant impact on the career success of participating researchers. Their publication activity increased markedly and led to high rates of citation. The recent approvals contradict the criticism made at the time that there were too few women as principal investigators: Of the four new special research programmes, three are led by women researchers.

The new special research programmes at a glance

“Correlated Quantum Materials and Solid-State Quantum Systems” special research programme

Coordination: Silke Bühler-Paschen, TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology)
Research network: TU Wien (Silke Bühler-Paschen, Neven Barisic, Karsten Held), ISTA (Zhanybek Alpichshev, Andrew Higginbotham, Georgios Katsaros, Kimberly Modic, Maksym Serbyn); plus two additional project partners still at the decision-making stage of the DFG 
Funding: €3.5 million over four years

Everyone is talking about quantum computers, in which quantum mechanical states represent bits called qubits. Although they can already perform certain calculations faster than conventional computers, calls are growing louder for more robust solid-state quantum systems to tackle the problem of quantum error correction and thus realise the full potential of quantum computing. Less well known are correlated quantum materials. These are designer materials with properties which are determined by the quantum effects of strongly interacting electrons. These materials are a highly active but extremely complex field of basic research on solid-state physics.  

The “Correlated Quantum Materials and Solid-State Quantum Systems” special research programme aims to combine these two fields. Concepts and methods developed in quantum computer research should now be used to help better understand correlated quantum materials. For instance, the use of entirely new entanglement measurements is intended to help unlock the mystery of high-temperature superconductivity. On the other hand, research should also focus on how correlated quantum materials could be utilised for quantum applications. Correlated quantum materials with topological properties could, for example, lead to very robust and highly controllable quantum devices in novel hybrid systems.

“Meiosis” special research programme

Coordination: Verena Jantsch-Plunger, Max Perutz Labs, University of Vienna
Research network: University of Vienna/Max Perutz Labs (Christopher Campbell, Alexander Dammermann, Verena Jantsch-Plunger, Franz Klein, Joao Matos, Peter Schlögelhofer), Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, IMBA (Anton Goloborodko), Johannes Kepler University Linz (Irene Tiemann-Boege), and Institute of Science and Technology Austria, ISTA (Beatriz Vicoso)
Funding: €3.7 million over four years

Our cells carry two copies of each chromosome, one inherited from each parent. During fertilisation, the male and female germ cells fuse together. This set is halved during the development of the sperm and egg cells to ensure that the chromosome set of our offspring is correct. The specialised cell division of meiosis accomplishes this in a fascinating dance of chromosomes and, in the process, reshuffles the genetic material in each generation. Meiotic errors can cause miscarriages, infertility, and congenital diseases, but, on the positive side, they also drive adaptation and evolution.
Despite far-reaching research achievements, we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the mechanistic details of the many steps taking place in meiosis and of how parthenogenetic (asexual) organisms “repurpose” meiosis. This special research programme aims to investigate these fundamental issues in numerous model organisms and humans. The nine members of the SFB bring together a wide and diverse range of expertise including cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, structural biology, biophysics, computer science, and mathematical modelling. 

The Department of Chromosome Biology at the University of Vienna has a long tradition of successful meiotic research. This special research programme also includes colleagues from Johannes Kepler University Linz, ISTA, and IMBA to increase the critical mass of meiosis researchers in Austria.

“SPyCoDe” special research programme 

Coordination: Matteo Maffei, Vienna University of Technology
Research network: Vienna University of Technology (Elena Andreeva, Georg Fuchsbauer, Laura Kovacs, Martina Lindorfer, Matteo Maffei), Graz University of Technology (Roderick Bloem, Maria Eichlseder, Daniel Gruss, Stefan Mangard), Institute of Science and Technology Austria, ISTA (Thomas A. Henzinger, Eleftherios Kokoris-Kogia, Krzysztof Pietrzak), Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt (Elisabeth Oswald), and University of Vienna (Johanna Ullrich)
Funding: €4.4 million over four years

Security and privacy are human rights which should hold in the digital society, too. The “security and privacy by design” principle, advocated in the new European GDPR, dictates that data protection should already be embedded in the early design phase of IT infrastructures. Unfortunately, state-of-the-art technologies are inadequate to realise this principle, as witnessed by the number of attacks and breaches. Without security and privacy, large-scale digitalisation is simply not possible. For all these reasons, security and privacy is a research field with extraordinary technological, societal, and economic impact.

The “SPyCoDe” special research programme aims at creating the technological foundations to realise the “security and privacy by design” principle, offering companies methods and tools to build large-scale, complex systems that are secure and privacy-preserving by construction, based on the safe composition of their components. This research crosscuts computer science, combining breakthroughs in logics, system security, and cryptography.

Austria has a young and internationally leading research community in these fields. The project brings together five different institutions (TU Wien, TU Graz, ISTA, University of Vienna, and University of Klagenfurt) into a distributed research centre which will establish a know-how pipeline encompassing teaching, basic research, and technology transfer.  

“Computational Electrical Machine Laboratory” special research programme 

Coordination: Annette Mütze, Graz University of Technology
Research network: Graz University of Technology (Günther Brenn, Peter Gangl, Manfred Kaltenbacher, Benjamin Marussig, Annette Mütze, Martin Schanz, Olaf Steinbach), Johannes Kepler University Linz (Herbert Egger), and Darmstadt University of Technology (Idoia Cortes Garcia, Herbert De Gersem, Jeannette Hussong, Florian Kummer, Dimitrios Loukrezis, Martin Oberlack, Ilia Roismann, Sebastian Schöps, Yvonne Späck-Leigsnering, Stefan Ulbrich, Bai-Xiang Xu)
Funding: €3.2 million over four years | In addition to the separate FWF Special Research Programme grant, this research project is also supported by a separate Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio grant from the DFG.

For decades, electrical machines have played a central role in energy conversion, not only as generators for producing electrical energy, but also as engines, for instance, for electric vehicles. Modern power electronics have brought about numerous new operating and application possibilities for such motors, and together with new materials and manufacturing techniques, as well as advances in design optimisation and control technology, they hold enormous potential for achieving climate targets. 

Current design methods for electrical machines are based on a limited number of parameters and operating modes, typically at constant speed or constant torque. Optimisation potential thus falls by the wayside. This SFB wants to make use of this potential and achieve a paradigm shift with the research work towards new integrated simulation and design approaches. The new approaches take into account all important aspects of an electrical machine from the outset, such as shape and topology, time-dependent operating cycles, complex material behaviour, parameter uncertainties, robustness and noise development, as well as new cooling techniques for pushing thermal limits. 

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