Hand holding light bulb in starry sky
FWF completes the reform of its career services with ASTRA. © Pexels/Bertelli

Quality-oriented, forward-looking, and fair: The further development of the FWF's career funding programs in a nutshell. With the new ASTRA (Advanced-Stage Research Award) Awards, the FWF is reforming its funding program for advanced postdocs with above-average, internationally visible research performance. Taking on responsibility, consolidating an individual research profile, and acquiring the necessary qualifications for academic leadership positions – thanks to their internationally competitive endowment level, the FWF ASTRA Awards help established researchers (R3-level) gain a foothold in their academic careers at Austrian research institutions. In this career phase – prior to a possible first senior faculty appointment – when researchers are in particularly intense competition with each other, ASTRA ensures a fair distribution of funding opportunities. The program offers attractive framework conditions that will allow researchers to develop and establish themselves as academic leaders in the long term, regardless of gender or discipline. The FWF ASTRA Awards are endowed with a basic grant of €500,000 to €1 million, and can be topped up with an additional tenure package of €200,000 for women. The five-year grants are awarded once a year to 18 researchers (currently planned) following a two-stage decision-making process. A place on the shortlist guarantees funding of €450,000 for up to ten further researchers.

ESPRIT and ASTRA - Career development programs up to international standards

ASTRA replaces both the previous Elise Richter and Elise Richter PEEK programs for women and the START Awards, and picks up where the ESPRIT (R2-level) program for early-stage researchers, successfully launched in 2021, leaves off. This means that in the future, the FWF will be offering postdocs a competitive, two-stage career funding program in line with international standards, which will balance out previous differences in terms of funding and reputation. At all career levels, researchers will no longer be funded according to their gender, but according to their common needs. At the same time, the advancement of women on the path to academic leadership positions remains a key program objective; half of the grants are reserved for women, as is also the case with ESPRIT.

Decline in Richter applications and frustrating START approval rate

Two main developments have made this reform necessary: Demand for the Elise Richter program, which was only available to women, has fallen by around 50% in recent years (from an average of 73 applications per year [2015-2021] to 38 and 35 applications per year in 2022 and 2023, respectively). At the same time, the number of applications for the START program has increased from year to year, resulting in an unacceptably low approval rate for applicants of only 6%. In addition, projects headed by men and from only a few select scientific disciplines were overrepresented.


Figure statistics Richter program: decline in applications and Figure Statistics START awards: Rising application figures, extremely low approval rate
Richter program: The trend in the number of applications shows the declining demand for this funding program. START Awards: Rising application rates and the extremely low approval rate confirm the need for reform. © FWF

The new ASTRA program will distribute funding and career opportunities among R3-level researchers more fairly and will address the different needs of the individual disciplines, including arts-based research. It has been developed based on many years of experience and expertise and draws on the results of a multi-year consultation process with experts and stakeholders. ASTRA aims to attract the best researchers to Austria or keep them here. The main objectives of the program are to support the consolidation and establishment of independent researchers’ academic careers, provide long-term career prospects, and support the advancement of highly qualified women.

New emphasis in the advancement of women: Tenure package for long-term academic career prospects

With ASTRA’s new tenure package, the FWF is providing excellent women researchers with an additional instrument to help them gain a long-term foothold in their research field. If research institutions award women a tenure-track position with a qualification agreement (or an equivalent position) no later than three years after the start of the ASTRA project, the FWF will increase the project funding by €200,000 per grant. This bonus is intended to help counteract the “leaky pipeline phenomenon” and give more women long-term prospects in top-level research. In addition, the FWF will be reserving half of the ASTRA grants for excellent peer-reviewed research projects by women, as well as incorporating successful measures for the advancement of women from the ESPRIT program, including funding for career coaching and child allowances.

Selection by an international jury: Shortlist ranking guarantees FWF funding

Funding is awarded in two stages. The first step is an international review of all applications. Based on these reviews, the FWF Scientific Board draws up a shortlist for the final jury hearing. Researchers who are ranked on the shortlist but are not ultimately selected by the ASTRA jury will be provided with €450,000 in funding from the Principal Investigator Project program (Merit Award). This means that even a shortlist nomination guarantees project funding from the FWF.

Key points of the FWF ASTRA Awards

  • Target group: Postdocs (established researchers, R3-level)
  • FWF funding volume: €21 million per year
  • Funding per project: On average approx. €1 million for five years
    • €500,000 to €1 million in project funding and a €200,000 tenure package for women
    • Tenure packages are awarded after women are granted a permanent position, a tenure-track position, and/or granted permanent status in an existing tenure-track position by the research institution (no later than three years after the start of the project)
  • Number of grants: Approx. 18 ASTRA grants are planned per year (50% of the grants are reserved for excellently-rated proposals by women)
  • Application requirements: Between four and eight years after completion of a doctorate with the additional restriction “twice in a lifetime” (only two submissions are possible); researchers already in a permanent position are not eligible to apply
  • Thematically open: Open to researchers from all disciplines of basic research, including arts-based research
  • Approval: Two-stage decision-making process with a hearing before an international jury and a final decision by the FWF Scientific Board in June
  • Advancement of women: Tenure package of €200,000 for women, as well as other measures specifically aimed at women
  • Merit Award: Shortlist ranking by the FWF Scientific Board guarantees three years of FWF Principal Investigator Project funding (€450,000) in the event of a rejection by the ASTRA jury

FWF completes the reform of its career services with ASTRA

Due to their transparent and non-biased awarding procedure and their highly competitive nature, the FWF’s career development programs have been held up as a benchmark both for outstanding quality and also as a driver behind successful research careers for many years. Competitively awarded third-party funding plays a decisive role in career development, especially for postdocs.

The guiding principle behind the reform of the FWF’s career programs was to make funding equally accessible to all postdocs, regardless of their academic background, and to eliminate previous programs’ differentiation into various target groups (e.g. incoming researchers, researchers re-entering the workforce, women) or objectives (brain gain, re-entry, group development, post-doctoral qualification), which resulted in varying reputation levels for these programs.

With the planned two-stage funding program, the FWF is applying these principles and aims to attract the best talents to Austria’s research institutions and give them long-term prospects here. The advancement of women remains a key objective.

The FWF initiated this reform in 2021 with the introduction of ESPRIT as the successor to the Hertha Firnberg and Lise Meitner programs. When the Hertha Firnberg program, which was open only to women, was discontinued, many were afraid of losing women as applicants, as they felt they would not feel addressed by a program open to all. In response, the FWF implemented several measures aimed specifically at the advancement of women: Not only are half of the funds to be awarded reserved for women, the approval rate for women should also not be lower than for men. The rule that applications from women are to be given priority if the applicants have the same qualifications and the projects are of the same quality is working as intended. ESPRIT funding shows a positive trend and the promises made when the program was launched have been kept: More women have been granted higher levels of funding in the ESPRIT early-stage program than in the Firnberg and Meitner programs in previous years. The numbers in detail: The FWF decided on 520 ESPRIT applications in 2022 and 2023 with an average overall approval rate of 30%; the rate was approx. 35% for applications with women as principal investigators, while the approval rate for men was approx. 26%. If we compare the number and funding levels of ESPRIT principal investigators with the last two years of the Firnberg and Meitner programs (2019/2020), we can draw the following conclusions: Compared to a total of 66 projects by women who would have been in the ESPRIT target group (5 years after doctorate) funded through the Meitner and Firnberg programs with a funding volume of approx. €14.3 million, a total of 81 women were funded in the ESPRIT program in two years with a funding volume of €25.1 million.

Abbildung Statistik Vergleich Frauenförderungen des FWF
The ESPRIT reform shows the way: A comparison of funding for women in two years of ESPRIT with the last two years of the Hertha Firnberg program for women and the Lise Meitner program for incoming researchers shows that the FWF is now funding more women with an overall higher volume. The FWF ASTRA Awards will also have this effect. © FWF

The FWF will now be continuing and further expanding this successful approach at the R3 level, as the advanced-stage postdoc sector is particularly crucial for Austria’s overall research performance and attractiveness as a research location. Long-term career prospects and an internationally competitive budget, the involvement of research institutions right from the proposal submission stage, additional tenure packages in the case of permanent, high-quality academic positions granted to women, and well-funded research projects meet the needs of researchers at this career level. With 18 planned ASTRA Awards and the possibility of receiving a Merit Award in the form of Principal Investigator Project funding for applicants who were shortlisted as a result of the international review but are not among the final ASTRA Award winners, the ASTRA program represents a significant improvement to the FWF’s program portfolio.


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