Interview & Opinion

Together for the future

Artemis Vakianis and Georg Winckler on the newly established alpha+ Foundation of the FWF. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: The Austrian Science Fund is the first state-financed funding agency for basic research to have established a non-profit foundation? What is the aim of the Foundation?

Artemis Vakianis: With the alpha+ Foundation, we want to encourage philanthropic individuals and organizations to support excellent researchers from all over Austria, not only in terms of ideas but also financially. We consider it important to ensure that research is broadly embedded in society. We want to invite the public to contribute to solving major social issues through philanthropic involvement.

Georg Winckler: As a public institution, the FWF is in constant dialogue with society. At present we are concerned with intensifying private funding throughout the country. In the USA, where this type of funding has a longstanding tradition, about one third of basic research is financed out of private funding. In order to tap this additional potential for researchers in our country, we need to build bridges to society and the business community. The alpha+ Foundation is one of these bridges for the FWF.

FWF: What is the strategic orientation of the Foundation?

Winckler: We have defined three spheres of activity represented by three keywords: courage, responsibility and trust. Under the heading of “courage”, aspiring top researchers are to receive additional funds so as to be able, for instance, to secure a better international foothold for themselves. In the second sphere, “responsibility”, the Foundation will award funds for projects that are working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And with the third sphere we want to initiate a nationwide cultural change in order to boost the public’s trust in science in general and in basic research in particular. All spheres of activity have one thing in common: those who decide to help through the Foundation can be sure of providing targeted support for men and women who are masters in their field.

FWF: Have specific thematic areas for research awards already been defined?

Winckler: There are major issues that affect us all, such as climate change or medical and technological progress. In the field of medicine, in particular, we are already witnessing a willingness to invest more in basic research. In addition, there is an EU-wide discussion on how not only to pre-define research areas but also to identify current problems that emerge from within in a society. In addition to science driven by curiosity, there are also the “inspirational missions”, such as the missions to the Moon, which drive basic research. In line with these two approaches, the Foundation will initially focus on the climate. There is certainly potential here to attract donations for basic research throughout Austria.

The foundation opens new doors for philanthropic involvement and is intended to anchor research more firmly in society, says Artemis Vakianis, the foundation’s Vice Chair. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: To what extent will the definition of focus areas also be guided by the donors?

Vakianis: As mentioned earlier, we will proactively look for partners to work on major topics that are considered to have particular social relevance. On the other hand, we are also being contacted directly by people who are interested in supporting specific areas of research. This is already happening with some of the FWF’s endowment awards, for instance in the fields of meteorology, medicine or research into the further development of the Internet.

We have a strong motivation to attract ambassadors for cutting-edge Austrian research from across society. Time will tell under which headings this will be taking place. In any case, the topics will be relevant to all of us. This is exactly what the Foundation is meant to enable us to do: jointly engage with the great questions of our epoch.

FWF: How will the Foundation and the FWF’s office work together in operational terms?

Vakianis: alpha+ is a foundation of the FWF, which means that the Foundation does not exist without the Fund. And so all additional funds awarded through the Foundation are subject to the FWF’s quality-assured review process which always serves as a basis for decision-making. Since alpha+ is not an operational foundation it has a lean structure. We can guarantee donors that 100 percent of the funds provided will always go to the researchers, regardless of the institution where they work. The Foundation is to be seen as complementary to the FWF’s traditional funding activities.

100 percent of the funds provided will go to the researchers.

Artemis Vakianis

FWF: Speaking of research institutions: universities also increasingly engage in fundraising in order to obtain additional resources for research. Does this mean the Foundation is acting in competition with other public institutions?

Vakianis: We set up the Foundation to complement the existing players. We see ourselves as service providers for the common good by making people aware of how and why research can be an important domain for private commitment. From comparisons with Germany, Sweden and other countries, we know what great potential lies dormant in this context. For that reason we assume that our activities can be a further boost at the national level to the cultural change that has already been initiated by the universities.

The proportion of private commitments is particularly high in research-heavy nations such as the USA or Switzerland, emphasizes the chair of the foundation, Georg Winckler. Source: Christine Miess/FWF

FWF: In comparison to other countries, basic research receives very little funding in Austria. Can the Foundation also be seen as a means of realizing tasks that are not being fulfilled by the state?

Winckler: In Austria, research expenditure expressed as a percentage of the GDP amounts to just under 3.2 percent, putting us among the leaders when it comes to spending on research and development. Only one sixth of this amount, however, is invested in basic research. In other countries this share is much higher. One may wonder why this is. In Switzerland, for example, the high proportion of basic research funding is provided to a considerable extent by industry. As a result, the country has become very strong in research and successful in the long term. This situation shapes a research culture as it does not yet exist in Austria. We need to catch up, but in order to do so we also require the appropriate legal framework.

Vakianis: We also find it important to emphasize that the Foundation has not been set up to compensate for deficits existing elsewhere. The Foundation is designed to create completely new opportunities for cooperating with civil society in addition to the FWF’s other funding activities.

Private commitment shapes a research culture as it does not yet exist in Austria.

Georg Winckler

FWF: When funds come from private donations, private interests could also come into play. What is the Foundation’s position on this issue?

Winckler: We have drawn up a code of conduct that provides strict guidance for when we accept money and when we do not. The code includes a civil clause stipulating that any research we fund may only be conducted for peaceful purposes. In addition, transparency of the sources of financing and the FWF’s recognized quality assurance system guarantee that 100 percent of donations are used for cutting-edge research.

Vakianis: The Foundation is committed to the same values as the FWF. The FWF’s Executive Board and the Foundation’s Board carefully weigh up the awards made by the Foundation. The Foundation is committed to fulfilling the purposes of the Austrian Science Fund and its remit.

FWF: Is research financed by third-party funding sufficiently transparent in Austria? Some years ago, debates arose in Germany and Austria when it transpired that research in Europe is financed inter alia by the US Department of Defense.

Winckler: In some countries there is very strong pressure to be more transparent. Whether or not such research assignments should be accepted is the subject of controversial discussion. The renowned MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) receives around one billion dollars a year from the US military. The crucial question is for what purposes the funds are used. In this context, explicit transparency provisions are very important, and there is increasing public pressure to introduce such provisions. It is important for institutions to disclose who is funding their work.

We know that we must act now if we are to guarantee a secure future.

Artemis Vakianis

FWF: The involvement of private sponsors in science funding has seen an upswing in recent years. How do you explain this trend?

Vakianis: Compared to other countries, the general donation volume per capita is rather low in Austria and consists of a great number of small donations. In the area of science and research, the sums donated are higher, but the number of people involved is still small. The growing willingness to get involved we have seen recently is certainly partly due to an increased public awareness of this new sector, which mobilises donors in a targeted manner. We also want to see a better tax situation for non-profit foundations in Austria. As a public institution, we are well placed to advocate progress in this respect.

FWF: How much potential do you see in Austria and in what areas of society?

Vakianis: First of all, we will mainly address other foundations, major donors and also corporations. We know that you need stamina and patience in basic research. We also know that we must act now if we are to guarantee a secure future for society. The FWF’s alpha+ Foundation has the advantage not only of being in touch with all areas of research, but also of cooperation across disciplines. In future it will be increasingly important to involve social stakeholders and multipliers in order to generate new knowledge. Climate research is a prime example of how important the interaction of the most diverse expert circles is, not only within science. By networking different actors, the Foundation also considers itself as a contact point for creative approaches to research into the great questions facing humanity.


Between 1999 and 2011, Georg Winckler was Rector of the University of Vienna and, among other functions, served as spokesperson for the European and Austrian university associations (EUA and uniko). In the latter capacity, he was also served on the FWF Executive Board from 2000 to 2005. Since then, this economist has held numerous positions in an advisory function and on committees, including as Chair of the Supervisory Board of Erste Stiftung. Since November 2019, Winckler has been honorary Chair of the alpha+ Foundation of the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

Artemis Vakianis, the Vice Chair of the alpha+ Foundation, has been Executive Vice-President of the FWF since 2016. Previously, as an economist and cultural manager she was responsible for the commercial management of numerous cultural institutions, including the Komische Oper Berlin and the “Steirischer Herbst” festival.


alpha+ Foundation

The alpha+ Foundation is a non-profit foundation set up by the Austrian Science Fund FWF in November 2019. In its funding activities, the Foundation focuses on excellent early-career basic researchers, research into major thematic complexes in line with the UN’s sustainability goals and on strengthening the position of science and research in civil society. The Foundation is committed to the mission of the FWF, Austria’s central institution for the support of basic research. In recent years, the FWF has already undertaken the first foundation-linked activities. Currently, research projects amounting to EUR 1.6 million per year are being supported with funds from the foundation.

Austrians as donors

 

  • While Austria is not in the first division when it comes to donations standing at EUR 78 of donor money per capita per annum, the volume of donations has doubled since 2008. Data for comparison: the amount donated per inhabitant is EUR 90 in Germany, EUR 114 in Sweden and EUR 257 in the UK.
  • In 2019, the Austrian population has donated EUR 700 million for philanthropic purposes, more than ever before. Data reflecting this increase include a rising number of regularly recurring donations, more donations to universities and increasing testamentary bequests. The top targets for donations are animals (33%), children (28%) and disaster relief (19%). Increases were recorded in the areas of assistance to the homeless (17%), to the environment and climate (12%) as well as arts and culture (9%).
  • The willingness to support the science and research sector is also on the rise. In 2018, a sum of around EUR 95 million was going to this sector (2017: 89 million). There was a particularly strong increase of 60 percent in donations to foundations set up by the 150 largest non-profit organizations.
  • Only 5 to 10 percent of all donations comes from people who have an annual income of more than 100,000 euros. Companies donate around EUR 50 million annually.

 

Source: Fundraising Verband Austria 2019

More information

www.alphaplusstiftung.at

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