New government scraps science and research ministry

The new Austrian government is integrating the country’s Ministry of Science and Research into a Ministry of Economics and Family Affairs. The move has met with a storm of protest among academics and students.

Like Germany, Austria went to the polls last September, and it has taken politicians in both countries two-and-a-half months to form new governments.

But whereas a conservative-social democrat coalition has taken over from the previous conservative-liberal government in Germany, Austria has seen a re-instalment of the conservative-social democrat coalition that has been in power for most of the time since 1987 – except for a six-year conservative coalition with the ultra right-wing Austrian Freedom Party that started in 2000.

The swearing in of the new Austrian administration under federal Chancellor Werner Faymann of the Austrian Social Democrats and Michael Spindelegger of the Austrian People’s Party, or ÖVP, was held at the Presidential Chancellery in Vienna on 16 December.

Afterwards, cabinet members were met outside by a noisy throng of protestors. The demonstrators were calling for the introduction of a capital gains tax and criticising the coalition for doing away with the federal Ministry of Science and Research.

Higher education and research is now the responsibility of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Family Affairs headed by ÖVP member Reinhold Mitterlehner.

A last-ditch attempt by Heinrich Schmidinger, chair of the Conference of Universities, to urge Austria’s President Heinz Fischer not to swear in a government without a minister of science and research, failed.

The student union Österreichische Hochschülerschaft organised a ‘funeral march’ to the ministry. Handing over his department to Mitterlehner, fellow ÖVP member Karlheinz Töchterle commented: “May the somewhat risky experiment work.”

To demonstrate its disapproval of the new arrangement, the Conference of Universities called on all institutions to fly black flags.

Mitterlehner complained that universities were “exaggerating things”, adding that “the new measure is not about abolishing a ministry but about a new organisational structure”.

The following day, around 9,500 students held a rally in front of the Ministry of Science and Research in Vienna, calling for its retention. The city’s major higher education institutions suspended lectures to allow students to take part in the protest.

There were further demonstrations in Graz, Salzburg and Klagenfurt. Another ‘funeral march’ was held in Innsbruck, with students wearing black.

Addressing the march, Innsbruck University Vice-chancellor Professor Tilmann Märk complained that a ministry was being abolished that had “brought forth politicians with foresight and vision in the past”.

Florian Kraushofer, chair of the student union, explained that the demonstrations were intended to show that higher education and research were not a priority of the new government and were being subordinated to business considerations.

“But science follows a different logic,” Kraushofer said. “Both in pure and in applied science, it has to be possible for research not to yield results. Science cannot always be profitable.”

The new Faymann administration has already stated that its top priority is to achieve a “structural zero deficit” by 2016. Faymann has argued that this priority has been set to attract “investors from all over the world, who demand a balance between economic power and debt status”.

And Spindelegger announced “tough measures” that are required to achieve the zero deficit goal. As yet it is uncertain whether the Ministry of Science and Research will remain the only higher education casualty under the new administration.

* Michael Gardner Email: