FWF: A New Dimension in Research Funding: Austria's First Clusters of Excellence Awarded

With the initiative excellent=austria, Austria is opening a new chapter in basic research: Starting in summer 2023, five Clusters of Excellence will be kicking off cooperative projects on an unprecedented scale at 11 different locations. The FWF and the participating research institutions are providing a total investment volume of €135 million to finance cutting-edge research on future-oriented topics for the first five years of the planned ten-year duration. Science Minister Martin Polaschek and FWF President Christof Gattringer announced the long-awaited funding decisions in Vienna.

An overview of Austria's first Clusters of Excellence can be found here:

More information on the individual clusters can be found here.

The first grants have been awarded as part of the federal government's excellent=austria initiative, created to expand cutting-edge research at universities and non-academic research institutions. Following a multi-stage decision-making process including a jury hearing, the FWF Board selected five Clusters of Excellence from a shortlist. Their selection was based on the recommendations of an international jury, which assessed the proposals’ potential for innovation and scientific excellence based on peer reviews from around the world. 

Science Minister Martin Polaschek and FWF President Christof Gattringer congratulate the successful researchers

“The Nobel Prize recently awarded to Anton Zeilinger has highlighted the excellence that characterizes Austria's top-level research. My goal is to exploit this potential and to promote research in this country as much as possible.  Together with the FWF, we are implementing excellent=austria, the largest funding initiative for basic research in Austria to date. The new Clusters of Excellence fund cutting-edge research across institutions, to strengthen collaborations between domestic research institutions and sharpen their profiles. A further aim is to increase the visibility of our top-level research internationally. I would like to congratulate all participating researchers and their research institutions for their groundbreaking work. The fruits of this work - the knowledge of tomorrow - will help answer today’s questions and solve the challenges of the future,” said Minister of Education, Science and Research Martin Polaschek when announcing the funding decisions. 

“Today marks a milestone for cutting-edge research in Austria. Thanks to their generous funding and long-term focus, Clusters of Excellence offer researchers entirely new opportunities to investigate key research questions. We were very impressed by the quality and pioneering spirit of all the proposals submitted, which is a clear indication of the promising potential of our universities and non-academic research institutions. I would like to congratulate all the successful Cluster researchers, and at the same time, I also want to thank those applicants we were unable to fund in this first round. Many of these proposals have the potential to succeed in a second call,” said FWF President Christof Gattringer.

"I would like to congratulate the FWF on the new Clusters of Excellence funding program. The FWF has succeeded in creating a truly visionary program that brings together talents in new and promising ways and focuses not only on scientific excellence, but also on education, communication, and inclusion. The jury wishes that more of the outstanding proposals presented in the hearing could have been funded. The Clusters of Excellence will unleash creativity, create synergies, and make Austria's basic research even more visible on an international level," says Jury Chair Stephen Curry from Imperial College London, who has been involved in the selection process from the beginning.

Austria's largest collaborative projects in six provinces

Researchers from 11 universities and non-academic research institutions will be working together in the five new Clusters of Excellence. The University of Vienna is involved in all five Clusters, and the University of Innsbruck, TU Wien, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria will be contributing to three Clusters each. The University of Linz and the Central European University are involved in two Clusters, while the Austrian Institute of Technology, the Medical University of Graz, the University of Graz, and the University of Salzburg complete the Clusters of Excellence by participating in one Cluster each. Teams of over 100 researchers will be collaborating in each Cluster over a period of five years.

Focus on key issues such as energy, health, and the knowledge crisis

Austria's new Clusters of Excellence will serve to advance basic research on key topics at the highest scientific level: Energy storage, quantum technologies, global health, the future of knowledge, and the cultural heritage of Eurasia. The funding can be used to establish long-term structures and attractive research conditions and boost international visibility at the participating institutions. Clusters of Excellence are characterized by a successful combination of cutting-edge research, research-led education, and the advancement of junior researchers, as well as an exchange of knowledge at national and international levels. Collaborations with the business community and the public to facilitate knowledge and technology transfer are another key element of the Clusters. 

Joint funding with participating universities and institutions

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) provides 60% of the funding volume for the individual Clusters, and the remaining 40% comes from the participating research institutions’ own funds. The FWF alone will be investing between €9 and 21 million per Cluster. In total, the FWF will be providing around €81 million for the first five years, €13 million of which will come from NextGenerationEU funding from the European Union. Around €54 million will be contributed by the participating institutions - a record-breaking amount for basic research projects in Austria.

Decision based on international reviews and jury recommendation

To enable an independent decision based on scientific criteria, the FWF organized a multi-stage selection process. In the first stage, close to 150 international experts evaluated the 35 pre-proposals submitted. When nominating reviewers, the FWF worked together with the European Science Foundation to rule out any conflicts of interest in the decision-making bodies. At a two-day meeting, the international jury members, all renowned researchers from different disciplines, discussed the pre-proposals on the basis of the reviews. The jury was chaired by Stephen Curry (Imperial College London; committee member of the European Research Council, ERC). After its deliberations, the jury selected 11 teams that it felt should be invited to submit full proposals and passed this recommendation on to the FWF Board. These 11 teams worked up full proposals of their research projects and presented them to the international jury at a hearing in February 2023. The final funding decisions were made by the FWF Board on the basis of the jury’s recommendations.

The international jury: Stephen Curry (Jury Chair, Imperial College London), Axel A. Brakhage (Vice President Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), Dominique Brossard (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Annette Hill (Lund University), Eystein Jansen (University of Bergen), Monica Juneja (University of Heidelberg), Anne-Marie Kermarrec (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, EPFL), Deborah E. Leckband (University of Illinois), Anne Ingeborg Myhr (Norwegian Research Centre), Kenneth Ruud (University of Tromsø), Jane Rylett (Western University), Martin van Hees (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).

Applications for the second excellent=austria track currently open

Parallel to the Clusters of Excellence, the FWF is currently also rolling out Emerging Fields, the second funding track of the excellence initiative. Teams from all fields of basic research are invited to tackle entirely new research ideas and break free of established approaches. The program focuses particularly on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects, as well as arts-based research. 45 consortia submitted proposals for the first call, and funding decisions will be made in March 2024.

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