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External evaluation of the Special Research Programme (SFB): Statement of the Austrian Science Fund FWF on the evaluation report

Völker, Thomas; Reckling, Falk


The evaluation conducted by the AIT together with the KU Leuven provided several avenues for the FWF to reassess the SFB programme and its position within its programme portfolio. The evaluators recommended increasing the budget for network programmes to at least 25% of the FWF’s total project funding. This seems ambitious given that the SFBs exhibit a current share of 5.6%. However, when considering all network programmes together (i.e., DK, doc.funds, FG, and SFB), their share was 17.4% of the FWF’s total project funding in 2019. 

The FWF is currently discussing how its network programmes can increase diversity and support researchers and groups best in terms of disciplinary backgrounds, career stage, and gender. Thus, while the structure of the SFB in terms of network size, funding provided, duration, etc. was considered as highly appropriate by the evaluators, the FWF will carefully consider all recommendations when introducing more flexibility into its funding portfolio.

In general, the recommendations need to be assessed in relation to the overall FWF programme portfolio and, in particular, in light of the announced ‘Excellence Initiative’. At the moment, this initiative consists of three pillars with the preliminary components ‘Excellence Clusters’, ‘Emerging Fields’, and ‘Austrian Chairs of Excellence’. At least the ‘Excellence Clusters’ will be an additional large network-oriented programme, which means that additional funding will become available. The ‘Emerging Fields’ pillar of the initiative aims at funding projects and areas of research that are not yet developed to a degree where they can be funded through the SFB programme or (potentially) ‘Excellence Clusters’. ‘Austrian Chairs of Excellence’ are intended to support Austrian research institutions in attracting the most talented researchers and/or providing excellent conditions for the best researchers already working at these institutions according to their strategic priorities. These pillars, especially ‘Excellence Clusters’ and ‘Emerging Fields’, need to be aligned with the SFB programme in order to create opportunities for funding the best researchers at Austrian research institutions, independent of disciplinary background and gender, throughout various career stages. For the FWF, it is interesting to note that interdisciplinary collaboration is among the key motivations for participating in an SFB project. Fostering these kinds of projects and collaborations is an important objective for the FWF, which has implemented a range of funding programmes, including very recent ones. Furthermore, the discrepancy reported by the evaluators regarding the self-perception of researchers is worth mentioning: while SFB projects tended to be less interdisciplinary than expected (e.g., interdisciplinary publications), the participants themselves considered their projects to be truly interdisciplinary. This may reflect the different understanding of the term interdisciplinarity and the knowledge production practices associated with it, which range from ‘borrowing’ particular methods or tools from other disciplines to co-developing research questions connecting various disciplines. Overall, the FWF agrees with the evaluation report’s assessment that potential tensions between calls for excellence and incentives for interdisciplinary collaboration deserve attention. This primarily concerns methods and approaches for evaluating inter- and transdisciplinary excellence. Gender mainstreaming has been a key element of the SFB programme since 2011 and remains a key goal of the FWF’s overall strategy. During the past year, the career programmes were re-structured to improve the conditions for female researchers. The low number of early-career researchers and female PIs as well as the lower approval rate of female researchers at the first evaluation stage is considered a major reason for concern. Hence, the FWF will carefully discuss adaptations to the SFB evaluation criteria and the procedures for rejecting particular sub-projects in SFB applications in order to remove unwanted biases.

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