At the annual press conference, the FWF's Executive Board and its Managing Director presented facts and figures from the year 2014 and demonstrated how the FWF contributes to strengthening Austria as a location for science and research.
With a total of €211.4 million in grants for 691 approved projects, the FWF managed to increase its volume of funding approvals slightly in the year under review. The number of researchers on the FWF's payroll likewise reached a new record level of 3,973.
In the year 2014, demand for FWF funding to support basic research projects was higher than ever before: In its five sessions, the FWF Board decided on a total of 2,432 project proposals. Across all FWF programmes, the approval rate in terms of funding volume came to 20.9% (not including Priority Research Programmes and FWF Doctoral Programmes [DKs]).
For many years now, interest in competitive project funds has increased steadily in the scientific community, thus also boosting demand for FWF funds. "This encouraging growth and highly visible potential for outstanding research in Austria must be promoted and supported," commented FWF President Pascale Ehrenfreund. "This means that as Austria's main funding agency for basic research, the FWF needs to be robust in all areas."
FWF promotes junior scientists and researchers
The public-sector funds invested by the FWF make a substantial contribution to the development and enhancement of human capital in Austria. The FWF‘s portfolio of funding programmes reflects the objective of enhancing the country‘s research potential in both qualitative and quantitative terms. An analysis of the age structure of employees in FWF-funded projects shows that the highest concentration of employees can be found in the 27 to 31 age group. The large number of junior scientists and researchers funded by the FWF is clear evidence of the fact that the organisation takes its guiding principle of "education through research" very seriously.
Regarding the future of FWF Doctoral Programmes (DKs), the Austrian Convention of Higher Education Institutions is currently wrapping up a broad-based discussion process. In cooperation with DK spokespersons, the universities and other parties, the FWF continues to support the advancement of structured, research-based doctoral studies in Austria.
The FWF as a European and international player
The continued advancement of cooperation in research policymaking in Europe is a common concern of the European Commission, the member states and European stakeholder organisations. In addition to its active involvement in the activities of Science Europe, it is also important to highlight the FWF's commitment to ERA-Net initiatives designed to improve the coordination of national research and funding activities. In 2014 alone, the FWF decided to take part in seven additional initiatives in the fields of humanities, biodiversity, rare diseases, cancer research, systems medicine, cardiovascular diseases and gender issues.
As for its bilateral international projects, the FWF organised its first call in cooperation with Belgium (Flanders) in addition to the seven existing European partnerships; in its cooperation efforts with countries outside Europe, the FWF also resumed its cooperation with India in addition to its six ongoing partnerships. Another new element in the FWF's international portfolio is a cooperation arrangement with the US National Science Foundation (NSF) within the framework of the GROW initiative (Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide). The FWF sponsors research visits for US doctoral candidates and thus contributes to intensifying cooperation between research teams in Austria and the US.
The FWF's active commitment to international cooperation and its targeted measures to support the internationalisation of Austrian science and research are also visible in the fact that more than half of all ongoing FWF projects are being carried out in cooperation with partners outside of Austria.
FWF leading the way in open access
For years now, the FWF has been among the world's leading organisations in the field of open access. In 2003, for example, the FWF was among the first funding agencies to sign the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Relative to its budget, the FWF's open access funding expenditures place it among the top open access funding agencies worldwide. The FWF's Open Access Policy was further optimised on the basis of a study commissioned in an international invitation to tender and presented to the public in 2014.
The FWF and the new Ministry of Science and Research
Last year, the most significant event in the Austrian research landscape was the formation of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy (BMWFW) in March 2014. The mere fact that the name of the new ministry includes the word "Science" already indicates that that the Austrian government has acknowledged the importance of this field.
Federal Vice-Chancellor and Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner also gave a strong show of support for science and research in April 2014, when he allocated a budget of €552 million to the FWF for the 2016 to 2018 period. This allocation marked the very first time the FWF has had a fixed, solid basis for planning defined in the federal budget. Previously, the FWF budget was put together from various sources and reserves. The new budget has enabled the FWF to continue investing in the work of Austria's most outstanding research teams – and thus also in the country's junior researchers.
Commitment to basic research
"Science and research are the raw materials of the future. Only those who work to promote these activities will succeed in the international competition among countries and locations.“ This insight from the BMWFW's Research Action Plan 2015 has shown itself in the visible success of researchers from Austria. It is also supported by various studies and action plans, all of which point to basic research as a "crucial factor in a productive innovation system" (RFTE 2013). As a result, those studies urgently recommend that Austria's investment and its general conditions for basic research be raised to the level observed in leading research nations such as Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands by 2020.
For example, the following measures are specified in the studies (Stärkefelder im Innovationssystem, 2015; Hochschulen zukunftsorientiert weiterentwickeln, 2015; Leitbetriebe Standortstrategie, 2014; Vision 2050, 2013; Governance und Partizipation, 2013):
- Expansion of structured doctoral education
- A funding package to enhance research infrastructure
- Substantial increases in the FWF's budget (at least 10% per year)
- Increasing funding approval rates at the FWF
In its current strategy documents, (Research Action Plan, 2015; Federal Government Work Programme, 2013; RTI Strategy, 2011) the Austrian federal government resolved to pursue the following objectives:
- to increase research intensity to 3.76% of GDP by 2020
- to increase the budget for institutions of higher education to 2% of GDP
- to create 2,500 additional Ph.D. and postdoc positions
In times of budget consolidation and economic crisis, these objectives from the RTI Strategy and the government's work programme cannot be realised in their entirety. In fact, for the first time in decades, the FWF has to face declining approval rates in terms of funding volume, which could even drop to below 15% by 2020. In 2014, it was necessary to suspend the FWF's Doctoral Programmes (DKs) as well as its Priority Research Programmes, which enjoy an excellent reputation among researchers and universities alike. Depending on the budget prospects, it may be necessary to discuss further spending cuts in FWF programmes.
Naturally, measures like these deprive research institutions of considerable resources, making it difficult for them to continue their top-notch basic research. The situation will also have severe effects on Austria's attractiveness as a location for innovation. As a result, the FWF's financial situation not only influences the organisation itself, but also affects the entire research sector, including universities as well as non-university research institutions.
The ongoing transition to a stable (but stagnant) budget will push approval rates down from 2016 onward. With each euro of funding approved, the FWF commits to payouts in the future, meaning that a large part of the budget must be used to cover obligations from past approvals. In order to maintain liquidity and make provisions for the extension of Priority Research Programmes and FWF Doctoral Programmes, the FWF will be forced to reduce its future obligations.
On the other hand, the FWF still finds itself confronted with a growing volume of funding requests.
Over the last five years, this growth has averaged 8% per year, and given the increasing size and quality of the Austrian scientific community it can be assumed that funding requests will continue to rise at this pace – or even faster – in the future. In order to maintain the current approval rates, the FWF's budget would have to be increased by an amount corresponding to the forecast growth in funding requests. For the 2015 to 2018 period, this would mean additional approvals totalling €257 million. In order to resume the catching-up process, however, additional efforts would be required.
Basic research is the future
The fact that basic research and its funding mechanisms have been entrusted to a new federal ministry with a broader portfolio has opened up new and promising opportunities, in particular with regard to permeability between the various sectors of the innovation system. However, one crucial requirement is that basic research and research institutions – as the main organisations engaging in this type of research in Austria – are accorded a central role in this context in order to ensure that the full creative power of Austrian science and research is allowed to unfold.
The facts make one thing perfectly clear: Without a strong FWF, basic research in Austria will be weakened; without strong basic research, the federal government's objective of catching up to the innovation leaders will become an increasingly distant prospect. A citation study conducted by the Center for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University shows that if all scientific and scholarly works from Austria were cited as frequently as those arising from FWF-funded projects, then Austria would have already reached the top echelons of basic research – in some cases far ahead of countries which are considered innovation leaders.
The FWF will, of course, continue its concerted efforts to attract additional resources, for example through private foundations and grants from the European Union. However, private-sector funds will never be able to replace public funding for basic research.
FWF President Pascale Ehrenfreund and FWF Managing Director Dorothea Sturn are clearly of one mind: "As in the past, the FWF will remain ready and willing to work together with the federal government and the Austrian scientific community to strengthen basic research in our country."