Status quo for research “regression”

Similar to the universities, the ten research and research funding institutions also receive their funding from the public sector for three years. The RTI Pact (Research, Technology and Innovation) is regulated in the Research Funding Act. It speaks of “long-term, growth-oriented planning and financing security”. For the period 2021-2023, around 3.8 billion euros were budgeted under the then ÖVP Science Minister Heinz Faßmann – an increase of 27 percent.

Today, Faßmann is no longer a government politician, but President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), which is largely financed from the RTI Pact. “Just adjusting for cumulative inflation is definitely not enough. That means the status quo, and in research the status quo actually means going backwards,” said Faßmann in an interview with ORF.at. If the budget were to be lower, contracts could no longer be extended, for example. This primarily affects young people who are employed on a temporary basis.

“Significantly” more than inflation compensation

For the year 2023, non-university research will have to make do with the current budget. The amount of funds available to the ten institutions in the three following years is a topic during the budget negotiations. In view of the many aid payments in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation (e.g. energy prices), it is questionable whether a similar increase as in the previous period is possible. It is clear that the list of demands and wishes will not get any shorter.

“In this concert of voices, all of which are now justifiably calling for funds, research and science must also be listened to,” says Christof Gattringer, President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, in an interview with ORF.at. Like his colleague Faßmann, the renowned particle physicist warns against going backwards if the financial scope is tightened. The increase in the RTI Pact must be “significantly” more than inflation compensation. Otherwise, compromises would have to be made, for example in the case of funding commitments for research plans.

Heinz Fassmann and Christof Gattringer

ORF.at/Lukas Krummholz

Faßmann and Gattringer want to remind you that investing in the future is also important

Like the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) and the Christian Doppler Research Society, the Austrian Science Fund FWF uses the RTI Pact financially. By law, the ministries of economy, science and technology must be involved. They also present the RTI draft – “in agreement” – with the Federal Chancellor and the Minister of Finance and negotiate with the ten non-university research and research funding institutions who gets how much of the cake.

academy

The OeAW is the largest basic-oriented, non-university research institution in Austria. It is largely financed by the public purse. Today the academy operates 25 institutes, for example in the fields of archaeology, demography and quantum physics.

Oblivion of the future “dangerous”

Both Faßmann and Gattringer want to see their initiative less as an announcement to the finance minister or the other department heads and more as a reminder of the future. “Politicians are currently putting out many fires and trying to maintain socio-political peace with appropriate financial resources,” says Faßmann. Nevertheless, politicians should also “save a bit of extinguishing water for the future”. Concentrating on the present is correct in view of the crises, but forgetting about the future is “dangerous”.

Of course, in addition to the 2024-2026 research budget, what is meant is the RTI Strategy 2030, which he had already negotiated in 2020. The paper defines the priorities of non-university research and funding. In this way, the aim is to catch up with the international top ranks, strengthen projects for climate protection and increasingly rely on knowledge, talent and skills. Halfway through this ten-year RTI strategy, the progress made so far is to be externally evaluated.

Christopher Gattringer

ORF.at/Lukas Krummholz

Around 70 percent of the researchers who are funded by the FWF are aged 35 or younger, says Gattringer

“As universities, non-university research institutions and sponsors, we want to create awareness that Austria will probably not be able to score with raw materials, but with knowledge and a well-educated society,” says Gattringer. According to Faßmann, people understand that low earners in particular have to be helped to make ends meet. “However, science and research must not be forgotten.”

The fact that Faßmann is now a person at the negotiating table who held a government position a few months ago is probably not a bad thing, says Gattringer. But it is more important that you share a common approach: “We are talking about a system in which all players have to work well together. This common understanding helps us to set up the research area well.”

Science Fund FWF

The Austrian Science Fund FWF is the central institution in Austria for the promotion of basic research. In addition to individual research projects, the FWF also supports larger special research areas and highly qualified researchers.

Opening clause in the budget?

Like the universities, the OeAW, FWF and Co. are faced with a rigid three-year budget. Once decided at a certain point in time, it will probably be difficult to break open the financial framework. The university conference has already insisted on grants to plug imminent budget holes. The three-year period of the universities does not end until 2024, so they have to budget with the funds decided in 2020 even longer than the non-university research funding and research institutions.

The government is assuming inflation will average two to three percent in 2020. “Nobody could have guessed that it is now almost nine percent, but it shows where we want to go,” says ex-Minister Faßmann. Despite the rigidity, he sticks to the three-year concept. This instrument creates a “certain degree of planning security, there is a ban on cuts for three years,” says Faßmann. Gattringer agrees: “As part of the excellence initiative, we have started large flagship projects that need to be secured in the long term.”

Heinz Fassmann

ORF.at/Lukas Krummholz

Faßmann can imagine an opt-out clause for service agreements that are concluded for three years

However, both scientists could imagine an opening clause for future financing and service agreements. If, for example, inflation exceeds a certain value in the coming years, renegotiations should take place. “Then you could inject more money in an emergency so that the big projects don’t suddenly come to a standstill,” says Gattringer, already eyeing the wage negotiations, which are also having an impact on the current budget.

Research has public support

In addition to the current budgetary allocation, the focus in recent years has primarily been on science and research itself. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020, it is hard to imagine everyday life without specialists. In social networks in particular, however, scientific skepticism quickly spread, which quickly turned into hatred. The OeAW therefore wants to set up a contact point to provide psychological and legal support to hostile researchers.

The support of the population is important to research, “it is also necessary. But I believe, despite some skeptics, that science also has this support,” says Faßmann. Gattringer adds that science is always a “process of organized criticism”. You learn something new every day through research results. “We have doubled the budget for science communication. But there is always room for improvement.”

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