Interview & Opinion

„There is a need for more awareness“

Hans Sünkel is a successful scholar and profound connoisseur of the system of higher education and research. Since the end of 2015 he has been chairman of the FWF Supervisory Board.
Hans Sünkel is a successful scholar and profound connoisseur of the system of higher education and research. Since the end of 2015 he has been chairman of the FWF Supervisory Board. Quelle: FWF/Martin Lusser

FWF: At the end of last year, you were elected chairman of the FWF Supervisory Board, having served on this body. In your view, what are the central tasks of the Supervisory Board?

Hans Sünkel: Following the recent amendment of the law (editor’s note: the Research and Technology Funding Act FTFG), the FWF now has a structure similar to that of universities, which means its Supervisory Board functions like a university council. The two bodies share two central spheres of responsibility: guidance and oversight, plus strategic planning and development, or, in other words, a combination of duty and choice. The first element is defined by the law and, in the case of the FWF, comprises the supervision of all processes within the organisation. The “choice” part involves input that the members of the Supervisory Board make to the strategic planning and development of the FWF, thus contributing to the country’s research system as a whole.

FWF: How do you assess the co-operation within the Supervisory Board which is composed of two groups: prominent individuals representing universities and research institutions elected by the Assembly of Delegates plus members nominated by government ministries?

Sünkel: The composition of the Supervisory Board offers the advantage that there is no inequity, but beneficial interaction. So far, the co-operation has been absolutely devoid of friction, so much so that it may even come as a surprise. We have complemented each other perfectly because we came from different fields and yet spoke with one voice. I consider it essential to place the common cause at the centre and draw on one’s own field of competence for the benefit of that cause. This is also very much the situation in the current Supervisory Board, although it has just been newly constituted.

FWF: The Executive Board of the FWF is up for election in 2016. For the first time this year, the President will be elected by the Supervisory Board on the basis of a shortlist of three candidates proposed by the Assembly of Delegates. What would your ideal candidate be like? Are you hoping for an all-singing, all-dancing multi-talented individual, as the daily Der Standard recently headlined?

The qualification profile for the job is similar to that of a rector.

Hans Sünkel

Sünkel: Again, the procedure for electing the Executive Board has been amended so as to align it with that of the universities. The new legal situation ensures that the FWF enjoys the same advantages this development had for the universities. Also, the qualification profile for the job is similar to that of a rector. It is true that the future president of the FWF will be confronted with many requirements given the complexity of his or her task, but we realize that not all requirements can be met with an equal level of intensity or excellence. I do see the need, however, for any individual who takes the helm of an institution with the central task of fostering basic research to have a scientific background. Experience with research is a crucial requirement. International experience is also indispensable because many of the topics we deal with have a very international dimension. The individual would also need to have management skills, like the rector of a university, and must therefore be proficient in the most important tools of management. Furthermore, the future president needs to have communication skills and a high public profile. After all, the office requires raising as much funding as possible for the FWF. Hence, the president needs to be a good negotiator in discussions with policy-makers and other funding sources, such as foundations, which will certainly become more important in the future.

FWF: What would you say is most important in the comprehensive catalogue of skills you listed?

Sünkel: It is crucial for this person to have the prerequisites conducive to progress for the FWF, since all the other scholarly bodies, i.e. universities and research institutions, stand to benefit from such a favourable evolution. In order to underpin that one needs a very solid budget. Therefore, negotiating skills are of paramount importance. This said, I would rate effective representation of the FWF towards the outside and public communication skills as being just as important, since this is where the money comes from, ultimately.

FWF: Can you imagine that the election might be fraught with tension, as has been the case at some universities, where there was disagreement between the university council and the senate?

Sünkel: Everything is imaginable, of course, but we assume that won’t be the case. It is our aim to keep friction out of the process. This is why the Supervisory Board and the Assembly of Delegates have joined forces in approaching individuals proactively in addition to posting the vacancy notice.

Basic research is a long-term endeavour requiring a high level of commitment and great enthusiasm, says Sünkel. He therefore considers continuous communication about the value of research with policy-makers, the business community and society as absolutely essential.
Basic research is a long-term endeavour requiring a high level of commitment and great enthusiasm, says Sünkel. He therefore considers continuous communication about the value of research with policy-makers, the business community and society as absolutely essential. Quelle: FWF/Martin Lusser

FWF: The FWF is Austria’s central funding organisation for open-end, i.e. basic research and thus a body that supports innovation and progress. For the coming years we have to expect a growing number of applications while the budget stays around the same level. How should the FWF deal with this situation?

Sünkel: The budget is a central issue. Although money is not everything, without money one is nothing, as the old adage goes. For the period 2016 to 2018, the FWF has a constant budget of 184 million per year. This gives us planning security at least – although we know that the amount is insufficient to fulfil all requirements. The gap between requirements and the available funds gets bigger each year. Every year, the number of applications increases by an average of eight per cent. As a consequence, approval rates are on the decline. This is an unfavourable trend for applicants, because their chances of success are waning, but it

The gap between requirements and the available funds gets bigger each year.

Hans Sünkel

is also negative for the project evaluators, because even some projects with a very good assessment cannot be funded. Further measures include not issuing any new calls for submission of doctoral programmes. We hope that we will need to use such emergency measures on a temporary basis only and can use the current year to make it quite clear what the FWF budget needs are in order to secure the future and discuss and negotiate these terms with the ministry – also with an eye to our neighbours Germany and Switzerland. In addition, there is the option of raising extra funds, i.e. engaging in a kind of “money mining”, as was suggested by Harald Mahrer, State Secretary at the Austrian Ministry of Science. While it sounds simple, it is difficult to do and still something of a vision for the future. Besides, it means breaking new ground for the FWF, which is why we don’t yet know how to factor it into our budget planning.

FWF: This budget situation translates into quite a loss of scholarly potential. How does that tally with the requirements, including the aspiration to be an innovation leader?

It is research and innovation that secure the future of the country.

Hans Sünkel

Sünkel: It is quite true, the fact that the gap between our budgetary means and the demand for project funding has been widening for years is a reason for concern among the scientific community. At the same time, it does go to show that our country has considerable research potential, particularly among young scholars, who submit most of the applications the FWF receives. This is gratifying and should make us optimistic. Perhaps policy-makers have yet to understand fully that this potentially very positive development needs to be met by an appropriate level of funding. In the final analysis, it is research and innovation that secure the future of the country, and, thus the future of the economy, industry and society as a whole.

FWF: Georg Wick, the pathologist and former President of the FWF, recently said in a guest commentary that the bleak situation of basic research in Austria was due to a lack of understanding among policy-makers and in the general public about science being part of our cultural assets. Do you share this view?

Sünkel: At present, there is probably a lack of awareness of what basic research really achieves. This is why I consider public relations to be a central task. We have to assure a strong presence in the media, to make our voice heard with confidence and to open up as an institution. All of this involves great effort without the promise of an immediate return on investment. Basic research is a long-term endeavour requiring a high level of commitment and great enthusiasm, also when it comes to communicating what it does. Continuous communication with policy-makers, the business community and society is therefore absolutely essential. There is a need for more awareness.

There is a lack of awareness of what basic research really achieves.

Hans Sünkel

FWF: You have made a successful career in science and headed international research groups. What do scholars need in order to do their work well and thus make a contribution to society?

Sünkel: In the distant past, scholars were able to work in “splendid isolation”, and all they needed was pen and paper. Today, the ideal situation mostly requires scholars to be able to develop and implement their ideas in a group. Hence, they need a biotope where they feel at home in terms of scholarly quality and where they enjoy enough freedom. Over-regulation is absolutely counter-productive. Basic research can be compared to an expedition: when you start out you don’t know what the final result will be. Ergo, research harbours risks. Researchers need the courage to accept risks, the courage to work on a certain topic, and it also requires courage on the part of the funding agencies to provide risk capital. The best people, sufficient funding and freedom are the ingredients of forward-looking science with a high level of output.

FWF: What else characterises successful teams?

Sünkel: What is true of soccer teams is also true of teams of scholars. They need the three C’s: competence, cooperation and competition. In other words, all members need maximum skills in their own field, secondly they have to be sufficiently aware of neighbouring disciplines and cooperate with them, and, thirdly, they need to deliberately face international competition, which sets the quality yardsticks.

FWF: Austria is a small country. How great is our potential to succeed in international competition?

We must not expect to reach the same level of excellence in all fields.

Hans Sünkel

Sünkel: As Austria is relatively small, we must not expect to reach the same level of excellence in all fields. That is an ambition we have to abandon. As a matter of fact, in relation to our size we are quite good. And in some areas, as in quantum physics, genetics or space research, Austria is even among the international vanguard. We have to reinforce our strengths and should aim at raising the overall quality standard in addition to having a few top areas. This is not only about good research; it is also about academic teaching. Having proper training is just as crucial. In this sphere, we still have certain imbalances in Austria. Teaching and research should be on a par, as is the case at good universities, mainly in the Anglo-American world.

FWF: You have not only pursued a scientific career but also held the post of rector of the Graz University of Technology, you were president of uniko, and now you are chairman of the FWF Supervisory Board. This means you have a background that covers the whole range from manager to communicator and negotiator. How beneficial is this kind of background for you today?

Sünkel: As a scholar one lives for one’s discipline and tries to be successful at international level. Compared to that, being a manger is a very different challenge. There is no training for the post of rector, which means that you have to acquire some skills on-the-job. Having a broad intellectual basis is beneficial, since it allows you not only to gauge but also to steer the development of an institution. In order to do that you need to have been active internationally so as to avoid an exclusively regional perspective and see the big picture. I consider the experience derived from being a rector a good prerequisite for heading a scientific academy or an important funding institution, such as the Austrian Science Fund.


Hans Sünkel is an internationally renowned expert of satellite geodesy (measuring the form and dimension of the Earth by means of satellites) and the holder of numerous Austrian and international awards. Sünkel is a professor at the Graz University of Technology, where he occupied the post of rector from 2003 until 2011. As President of Universities Austria (uniko), an office he held from 2010 until 2011, Hans Sünkel called for charging students’ fees and fought against the underfunding of universities. He has been chairman of the FWF Supervisory Board since December 2015.


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