OIIP: Impoverishing Public Debate

Budget cuts have severed the life line to independent Austrian research institutes

Jan. 22 marked the 100th birthday of Bruno Kreisky, the visionary chancellor who reintroduced postwar Austria to the world – and brought the world to Austria.

Under Kreisky, at the height of the Cold War, Austria became a bridge between East and West and a vocal advocate for peace and arms control. He persuaded the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international organizations to establish headquarters in Vienna. And in 1978, he founded the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP), a politically independent think tank, to foster research and candid debate on Austria’s role in the world.

So it is painfully ironic that even as Austria celebrates the centenary of Kreisky’s birth – with exhibitions, conferences, cultural events and even his own Facebook page – one of the enduring legacies of his internationalism, OIIP, may this year be forced to close its doors.

Draconian budget cuts by the Federal Ministry of Science and Research, announced in November, threaten the survival of OIIP and more than 50 other independent research centers in the humanities, social and physical sciences. As of Jul. 1, they will lose half their core funding from the Ministry, and in 2012, the Ministry will eliminate its support entirely.

“Austria will be a poorer country without us,” Univ.-Prof. Dr. Heinz Gärtner, OIIP Senior Fellow, told The Vienna Review.

OIIP studies an array of critical issues that inform Austrian foreign policy, including European and transatlantic relations, arms control and international security, terrorism, regional conflicts, migration and the needs of the developing world. It was also the only Austrian research center to make the list of the world’s best think tanks compiled in 2007 by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

According to Gärtner, OIIP is “the first address for international scholars, journalists and diplomats who want to hear an independent viewpoint on international relations apart from official opinions.” If OIIP closes, one of Austria’s few critical voices on foreign policy will fall silent. “It would be very symbolic that Austria isn’t interested in international relations anymore,” he said.

Dr. Beatrix Karl, Federal Minister of Science and Research from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), has claimed that the slash in funding for independent research centers, totalling €28.1 million over four years (€4 million in 2011, and then €8 million annually through 2014), “is certainly not a purely budgetary measure – it is above all also a structural reform” intended to “concentrate excellence and thereby also strengthen the international visibility [of Austrian research] as well as its inter- and trans-disciplinarity.” According to the Ministry, the cornerstones of its budget, devoted to universities, Fachhochschulen, the Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Science and Technology, scholarships and fellowships, will remain untouched by these consolidation measures.

“We are putting funding for non-university research on new legs,” Karl has stated. But in fact, her ministry’s sweeping budget cuts will knock the legs out from under dozens of think tanks, and may force some of Austria’s most prominent research centers to close down. These include the Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics (ESI), the Institute for the Human Sciences (IWM), the European Center for Welfare Policy and Social Research, and the Center for Social Innovation (CSI).

So far nearly 20,000 supporters from all over the world, including renowned scholars from all disciplines, have signed an online petition opposing Karl’s budget cuts for non-university research centers (http://wissenschaft.research.at). The Wissenschaftskonferenz, an association of think tanks that promotes the achievements of Austria’s independent research sector, is pressuring Parliament to allocate funds for independent research institutes. But so far, it has made little headway.

Erhard Busek, Federal Minister of Science and Research from 1991 to 1994 and a leading member of the ÖVP, harshly criticized Karl’s cuts to independent research in an interview in Der Standard. Karl had not demonstrated the necessity of such drastic reductions, he said, and no evaluation, public discussion or consultation with the affected institutes had occurred before she issued her fiat. Without core funding, Busek emphasized, independent research centers will have a harder time attracting EU research grants and other resources. The budget cuts could also encourage a brain drain: Austria risks losing many of its top researchers to other countries.

Der Standard has pointed out that the €28 million that Karl’s reductions will save is inconsequential in comparison to the estimated €10-15 billion price tag of the Koralmbahn train line linking Graz and Klagenfurt, which has been criticized as a pork barrel project.

Yet the cost to Austria in terms of lost intellectual capital is enormous. Think tanks foster debate and critical thinking, which strengthens democracy, contributes to a vibrant civil society and encourages innovation and creative problem-solving.

“It takes astonishingly little money to destroy the country’s intellectual infrastructure,” Dr. Peter A. Bruck, President of the Wissenschaftskonferenz, told Wirtschaftsblatt. “Chopping down an entire sector of science and research has the same effect as in an orchard: you can’t cut down the trees first and then expect excellent fruit and a rich harvest.”

Gärtner blames a bureaucratic mentality for the budget cuts, calling Austria a Vorsichtsgesellschaft, an overly cautious, risk-averse society.

“Bureaucracy is risk-averse and this dominates the whole debate. Anything outside of official debate is too risky for them. They’re too cautious.” He warned that “if you’re not willing to have an open and once in a while risky debate, or a debate on controversial issues, the result will be mediocrity.”

This concept of the Vorsichtsgesellschaft has serious implications for Austria and its place in the world. If the country wants to be globally competitive and play a relevant role in international relations, critics say, it needs to be well informed and well connected, receptive to new ideas and willing to listen to criticism. Without this kind of openness, “Austria’s already low profile on the world stage will become even lower,” Gärtner said.

But then perhaps that’s not so surprising. “Provincialization is the leitmotif of this government,” Franz Vranitzky, former Federal Chancellor who served for many years as Chair of OIIP, told Der Standard. His viewpoint finds support in confidential U.S. State Department cables recently released by WikiLeaks. According to the cables, American diplomats in Vienna were “frustrated,” “extremely disappointed” and “concerned” about Austria’s disengagement from international relations and its growing isolationism. Although they identified the potential for Austria to play a leadership role in the Balkans and the Black Sea region and in pushing for arms control and disarmament, they also acknowledged that there is “a gap between the image Austria has of its role in the world and its actual achievement, which is increasingly modest.”

“Austria is proud of all the international institutions it hosts, but it’s not enthusiastic about an independent voice or analysis, apart from official opinions,” according to Gärtner. “Without an open and independent debate, Austrian foreign policy will become even more backward,” he asserted.

OIIP is trying hard to find a way to save itself, but Gärtner was pessimistic. “It’s possible that the Institute will survive, but nothing on the horizon will replace the lost funding,” he said, since the Ministry of Science and Research provides 35-40 percent of its annual budget. “In many other countries the Foreign Ministry is one of the principal supporters of international relations institutes,” he pointed out, but the Austrian Foreign Ministry has never provided OIIP with significant support.

“OIIP has always struggled to secure sufficient funding, but the current cut will be devastating,” Gärtner said. In concrete terms, if the Institute closes, some 15 young and mid-career scholars will lose their jobs. (The Ministry of Science and Research is trying to find university positions for OIIP’s four senior researchers, including Gärtner.)

But the ripple effects will be far-reaching. Over the years, OIIP has trained hundreds of young researchers, academics, policy practitioners and future leaders, and that will end. The Institute’s extensive network of experts at top universities and research centers around the world will be lost, as will its research partnerships with the EU and other institutions.

Says former Chancellor Vranitzsky, “It is madness to shut one of the last foreign policy windows that the country still has.”

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