Published online 29 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.409


Austrian science faces budget challenges

Incoming president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences tackles potential cuts.

Austrian Academy of SciencesThe Austrian Academy of Science is facing a tighter budget.Austrian Academy of Sciences

The Austrian Academy of Sciences is facing a budget squeeze that will pose challenges for its newly elected president, pathologist Helmut Denk.

Last week, the Austrian government backed down from its threat to cut the science budget by 40%, approving instead a small rise that slows rather than reverses the country's plans for a big expansion in science.

But the Austrian Academy of Sciences, a learned society that runs 33 research institutes across the country, gets a mere 2% rise in its budget, despite the fact that it has recently opened several new research centres. Outgoing academy president and theoretical chemist Peter Schuster says that these centres — including the Centre for Molecular Medicine and the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, both in Vienna — will be sheltered from cuts.

However, it is likely that older institutions will feel the squeeze. "My biggest challenge will be maintaining scientific excellence with a low budget," says Denk, who was elected on 24 April and will take office on 1 July. Denk has eight years' experience as vice-president of the FWF, Austria's research agency, which is now facing its own budget cut of 18%.

Yet the public's perception of Austrian science may prove as troublesome as the budget squeeze. The Austrian scientific community is seen by many as closed, hierarchical and resistant to change. Attempts to cover up research scandals — such as the questionable trials of a stem-cell treatment for urinary incontinence at a hospital in Innsbruck (see Doctors accused of doing illegal stem-cell trials) — have tarnished Austria's reputation abroad and caused tensions within its own academic community. Denk insists that the problem is not particular to Austria: "There are occasional bad practices everywhere," he says.

An invigorated institution

The academy itself has only recently been subject to the sort of evaluation of research performance that is de rigeur in Europe. But Denk says that the academy is already in a process of modernization. In recent years, Schuster has begun to open up the academy up to the outside world, establishing a new management structure that incorporates an external research advisory board comprising scientists from abroad, and a predominantly external financial advisory board. Last year, Schuster launched a Young Academy, with members elected for eight years or until they hit their 45th birthday, in the hope of bringing a dose of youthful vigour into the ageing institution.

Both the Centre for Molecular Medicine, and the newly established Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology in Vienna are run by directors who are not Austrian, a point that is important to Denk. "Austria has to open up more to the international community," he says, adding that one of his first priorities will be to make more connections with research institutions in other countries, such as Germany's Max Planck Society, and to improve communication with the Austrian public.

The academy's research advisory board is now evaluating its institutes to decide where to cut back without jeopardizing the new developments. Many in Austria believe that the below-inflation increase in the academy's budget this year is a reflection of politicians' impatience with its slowness to close down research projects that are no longer at the cutting edge. "It could be true," admits Denk. 

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