Austria's ruling parties have made technology and innovation a priority and have put a controversial figure in charge. Michael Gardner reports
Headlines around the world have focused on the arrival of the far right Freedom Party in government in Austria. But the new People's Party-Freedom Party coalition has an extensive programme that includes increasing research as a percentage of gross national product, establishing a Council for Research and Technology Development, launching national research programmes in coordination with European Union programmes, and schemes to promote cooperation among innovative companies, research institutions, universities and Fachhochschulen (polytechnics). Research at universities is also to be evaluated regularly and results are to have an effect on research funding.
As minister for innovation and the future, the Freedom Party's Michael Schmid will be responsible for the FFF, the federal fund for applied research, and the technology fund, which is used for technical research and development. Scientific research and higher education will be the responsibility of Elisabeth Gehrer, minister of science, education and culture, a minister from the People's Party. Her portfolio includes the FWF, the Austrian science fund.
In 1993-94, as a senior official of the Styrian government, Mr Schmid arranged funding for the notorious right-extremist journal Aula to the tune of 150,000 shillings (Pounds 6,700). Aula has claimed that "mass-gassing of Jews cannot have been carried out" as officially documented. The journal's publishers have since been brought to court.
The 2.5 per cent share of GNP the programme envisages for research by 2005, with an intermediate 2 per cent level for 2002, is well in line with demands made in the Freedom Party's technology paper. This paper is highly critical of the 1.52 per cent of gross national product that Austria spends on research and development and calls for an increase to 2 to 2.2 per cent, in line with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average.
The paper appears to fall short of a key demand not only of the Freedom Party, but also of leading science organisations in Austria, for a single ministry for technology and research. Instead it proposes a council for research and technology development to consolidate the country's research effort. The council will allocate priority areas for all quasi-public science funding bodies, advise the government on research issues, link university and applied research and technology in industry, and oversee the monitoring and international benchmarking of the innovation.
Networking with European partners in research is a goal. In addition, national programmes dealing with focal areas of research are to be coordinated with corresponding European Union programmes. Tax reforms are promised to benefit industrial research, and special incentives are to be created to attract international research institutions.
Funds originating from privatising nationalised industries are to be put to use in a "technology offensive". Special mention is made in the government's programme of the importance of biotechnology and genetic engineering to Austria's research future.
The FWF is the country's chief funding body for pure research, while the FFF deals with applied research. Both are mainly publicly funded. Like other academic and research organisations in the country, the FWF has voiced its considerable concern over the new government leading Austria into isolation internationally. But it has also voiced scepticism over the government's research programme.
The FWF maintains that the government could attempt to soften up Austria's peer review system. The organisation's spokesman, Laurenz Niel, maintains that, after close scrutiny of the research section in the coalition agreement, tendencies towards introducing new control and selection in research and research funding cannot be ruled out.