Integrating Science and Research into the Ministry of Economy in Austria: Better Coordination of Innovation Cycle?

Europe of Knowledge |

After the election on 29 September 2013, Austria is facing another five years of the same coalition government under the Social Democrat Werner Faymann (SPÖ) and his junior partner, the conservative Christian People’s Party (ÖVP). While the Austrian media is almost unison in attesting this renewed government a sense of gridlock, one decision has caused an outcry and stirred even demonstrations: there will be no independent ministry for science and research anymore. Instead, the conservative Reinhold Mitterlehner will add the science and higher education agenda under the wings of his Ministry of Economy.


Among the many critics, some (the author included) have argued that this may constitute an opportunity, since the minister is a heavyweight within the government (unlike his hapless predecessor, Minister Töchterle). The majority however holds that the move is a simple sign of further economisation of the higher education sector. Almost no one outside of the government believes that the decision follows a distinct political strategy; judging on ground of the past five years, we know that the two parties in power are hardly interested in science and research at all. In the concrete context of forging the government, it seems as if science had to yield to a separate portfolio for family affairs (the number of ministries should not be extended, and family affairs is deemed more necessary by the heads of the government).


Austria: Innovation Leader or Follower?

Dismantling the ministry of science and research has a distinctive European angle. According to the European Commission’s Innovation Union Scoreboard, assessing the research and innovation performance of the EU27 Member States, in 2013 Austria is still an “Innovation Follower” – despite being one of the wealthiest and most productive economies in the Union. In 2011, the previous Austrian government (with the same chancellor, the same Vice-chancellor, and the same minister for economic affairs) has adopted the so-called FTI-Strategy (Forschung-Technologie-Innovation, Research-Technology-Innovation), which boldly proclaims to make Austria an “Innovation Leader”.


The goal to become an “Innovation Leader” is ambitious, although probably not too ambitious for a country that is faring quite well during the last years. Austria, however, has embarked on a Sonderweg, particularly in comparison with other European countries of similar size: unlike Israel, Denmark, Switzerland, or Sweden, the Austrian government is devoting more than 2/3 of public R&D money to industry-related research. The contributions for basic research and universities are far lower than in the countries just mentioned.


The problems of the basic research-funding agency, FWF, and also of the universities (that have made world media coverage in 2009/10 when #unibrennt movement against restrictions to the access to higher education spread from Vienna), can be found in this rather unique and, some would suggest, quite unfair balancing of taxpayers’ money. In any case: private industry already benefits from the expansion of investment more than the public institutions such as universities. Against this backdrop, the integration of science and research into the ministry of economy could be interpreted as another blow for the scientific community in Austria.


Looking to Europe

It is, however, noteworthy to take a closer look at the various justifications for the integration (or merger?) given by the new minister Mitterlehner early this week. Interestingly, they also refer to European issues of science policy.


The first justification by Mitterlehner for integrating the science and research agenda into the ministry for economic affairs referred to European good practice models: countries like UK or Spain had done a similar merger, so the minister. It is true that in both countries, the universities, research, and science in general belong to a larger ministry (or department). In UK, however, the institutional set-up of the executive branch is too different for easy comparison. Also, with David Willets, there is a dedicated Minister of State for Science and Universities. By and large, the Spanish solution resembles what is happening in Austria right now. If that were true, the future is bleak: for the moment at least, we can only hope that the brutally hard and ignorant path of the Spanish government towards science will not serve as a template for the Austrian government.


The other justification is about synergy effects: by bringing together two branches of the national administration, policy instruments should be better coordinated in the future. Mitterlehner even mentioned that his ministry would now cover the entire innovation chain (in this written statement, this was quietly exchanged to the more appropriate notion of the innovation cycle). In the same context, the minister explicitly refers to the new European research-funding programme. The ministry would now basically mirror the different facets and pillars of Horizon 2020.


It is true that the Austrian innovation and research system requires better coordination (like many other national innovation systems do). However, it is not true that the Ministry of Economy now covers all instruments, from funding basic research to industry-support. Most of the instruments directed at applied research are actually located in the Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (bmvit). And anyhow, even if all instruments were to be located under the roof of one ministry, it is doubtful that this would result in better coordination – or at least, historically, it did not, as we learned in the early 2000s, when the bmvit was actually the only principal of almost all various agents.


Merger or subordination?

Still, the reference to Horizon 2020 is quite interesting. It is a signal that this programme has become the point of reference of research policy in EU Member States. It is also an interesting remark because it may indicate that the new leadership will be more outward looking, and will focus more on the political agenda of the European Research Area. If that were the case, the new minister may indeed start to appreciate basic research as a value on its own; and, maybe as important, he may build up more pressure on the universities to reform, something that is dearly missing so far.


So, what do we learn from this trip into the narrow world of Austrian science policy? Firstly, that the Austrian Sonderweg is probably to continue, even though the institutional integration of two ministries also holds the (unlikely) promise of strengthening all ties of the innovation cycle (and particularly the weak basic research). Secondly, we come to realize that the justifications mentioned above either do not hold, or have to be seen as signs of worse to come. And thirdly, we learn that the European research policy agenda, and “Horizon 2020” in particular, has become the point of reference for science policy in a European Union member state like Austria. Is the latter good news? Much will depend whether Minister Mitterlehner will interpret the enlargement of his portfolio as a merger of two ministries, or as the subordination of science and research under the Ministry of Economy. For that, and for concrete results of this development, we will have to wait and see.


Dr.Thomas König is currently on parental leave. In 2014, he will be a Fulbright Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University.