Published online 22 November 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.626

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Austrian physics institute saved from the axe

But the futures of dozens more hang in the balance.

Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical PhysicsThe Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics has been saved but other institutes could close after funding cuts in Austria.Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics

The world-renowned Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics in Vienna has been rescued from imminent closure after more than two hundred international researchers — including Nobel prizewinners and recipients of the Fields Medal — wrote letters of support to the Austrian government.

The institute will now be integrated into the University of Vienna. But the fate of more than 70 further non-university academic institutes in Austria, most of them in the social sciences and humanities, remains uncertain.

In October, the government unexpectedly decided that it would terminate the budgets of such institutes by 2012 to save money. The institutes were informed of the decision only at the beginning of November.

The government, which will save just €28.1 million (US$38.5 million) a year as a result of the move, drew heavy criticism for not seeking advice before announcing its shock decision — it did not even consult the Forschungsrat, its own research advisory council.

Since the announcement, research minister Beatrix Karl has backtracked under pressure. On 16 November, she promised to find extra cash for universities that agree to integrate any of the institutes. The prestigious Erwin Schrödinger Institute was immediately snapped up.

“We'll make sure the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.”

Peter Skalicky
Vienna University of Technology

Karl made the same offer to the Academy of Sciences in Vienna, which has its own research centres. In addition, she said that the government would continue to match funds for any European Union grants the institutes hold, and would extend financial support to strengthen the national infrastructure for research archiving or documentation — some of which is carried out by humanities institutes.

Outmoded institutes?

Karl now argues that the decision to cut budgets is also intended to rationalize a fragmented research landscape. The small institutes targeted were mostly created during the 1970s as a means of bypassing inflexible university rules that made it hard to respond to new academic needs. But this problem was overcome by a 2002 law that gave universities more independence and flexibility, she says.

Physicist Peter Skalicky, rector of the Vienna University of Technology and vice-president of the Forschungsrat, says that the government's decision was premature, but most institutes can easily be integrated into the universities that spawned them. Where that is difficult, he says, the Forschungsrat will seek individual solutions. "We'll make sure the baby is not thrown out with the bath water," he says.

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The Erwin Schrödinger Institute, which runs a popular visiting-scholars programme and conference series, was evaluated by the research ministry at its own instigation in 2002 and 2008, and emerged with flying colours. "We knew we were politically vulnerable, so it was wise to do this," says Klaus Schmidt, the institute's president and emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna. The government has never given much advance notice of the institute's budget for a particular year.

Schmidt says that integration into the University of Vienna will bring financial security, and — at least in the short term — allow the institute to continue operating independently. But he fears that in the long run the chronically under-funded university will put pressure on the institute to churn out more graduates and reduce its budget for visitors. "In the first year, the Erwin Schrödinger Institute will be seen as a gift by the university, and in the following years as just another player in a zero sum game," he adds. 

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