Crisis and Transformation

Cuts at the Austrian Academy of Sciences threaten the country’s research future

Opinion | Hans Peter Hye | December 2011 / January 2012

In early November, Austria’s Science Minister and the Presiding Committee of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS) signed a "performance agreement" for 2012-2014 which foresees large cuts to the Academy’s budget, requiring the axing of 300 of the 781 full-time positions and the closure of research activities. The media response was significant, with only Kurier and Die Presse, not covering the issue. The AAS workers’ council has initiated  a petition against the cuts which had over 10,000 signatures as The Vienna Review went to press.

A Vital Institution

The Austrian Academy of Sciences is the biggest and most significant non-university research organisation in Austria today. It covers a broad spectrum of natural sciences and humanities related fields and has, over the past few years, had great success developing international networks. However, this has only been possible with the increased recruitment of outstanding scholars and the adequate provision of the necessary equipment and infrastructure. This has been made possible with increased financial support over the past 10-15 years, provided chiefly by public agencies, while third-party private funding tends to be rare. Thus the Academy is immediately affected when public authorities cut back on spending. This is all the more true, as the natural and human sciences are generally marginal to Austrian political culture.

The funds stipulated in the "performance agreement" for the next three years are, by any measure, far too low for the Academy’s research teams to continue working at the current level. Additional financial obligations only further strain operations: The proposed reductions  would mean spending cuts up to €40 million and the laying off of at least 30% of the Academy’s highly qualified staff – a huge loss of scholarly expertise and, thus, a sure forfeit of future accomplishments.


The Future of Research

This drastic a cutback in staff is unprecedented in the history of the Second Republic. Indeed, in no other area have comparable cuts being planned. And it is hard to understand why, even in the current macro-economic situation, that such measures are justified. Affected employees have begun to secure third-party funding for projects amounting to some €22 million which means that now not only the research will go elsewhere, but also the funding. The dismissal of project managers, discontinuation of research, and lay-offs of project staff will undoubtedly lead to a lasting decline in know-how and infrastructure.

Austria’s future achievements and international competitiveness are in grave danger. Basic research contributes essentially to the material and intellectual wealth and potential of a society, and the intended measures can only harm Austria as a location for innovation and business. Thus it can only be in policy makers’ interest, especially in times of accelerated change, to firmly anchor science and research in the public mind as building blocks for the future that have a legitimated claim on public resources. As it is, Austria runs the risk of irreversably damaging its extraordinary and essentially sound research infrastructure – however much in need of reform.


Keeping the Workforce

Naturally, job preservation and social safeguards for the employees obliged to leave the Academy are of utmost importance to both the staff and the workers’ council. As scholars, they are very much beholden both to the institution and their work – hence, their aspiration to strengthen the Academy through internal reforms. Only in this way – and not through arbitrary dismantling – can the Academy, assert its (Austrian) position in international research in the years to come. A petition was published online (see address below), that has generated an unexpected wave of solidarity, both at home and abroad. Of the current total 11,000 signatories, many hail from small municipalities in Austria, showing the country’s deep-rooted appreciation for the Academy. Nearly half the signatories (including prominent public figures) come from greater Europe and overseas, confirming the high international recognition of the Academy’s research.

It remains to be seen whether this campaign will be effective.


The Academy’s Outlook

It is very unlikely that the Academy will emerge from the termination of projects and break-up of research teams unscathed. The on-going tightening of budgets in the foreseeable future will continue to exert pressure on a reduced Academy. With these "losses", the Academy may not produce the brilliant results displayed in previous annual balance sheets and may be crippled still further.

The gaping hole in the budget will not be filled any time soon, particularly if the long overdue internal reforms are not advanced. Ultimately, the current crisis must certainly be blamed on the long-standing delay of reform.


Translated from German by Marysia Miller-Aichholz.

Hans Peter Hye is a researcher in the Historical Commission of the AAS, and a member of the Academy’s workers’ council.

Online petition:

Other articles from this issue