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Changes afoot at ARC

Management shake-up planned amid concerns over political influence at Austrian Research Centers

By | August 11, 2005

The Austrian government is planning to reorganize the management structure of the Austrian Research Centers (ARC), a move that scientists hope will result in more power moving to the scientific director, and away from a management team with strong political links.

The ARC in Seibersdorf is the largest government-funded organization undertaking applied research in Austria, with an annual budget of €100 million. Its 700 employees work mainly on information technology and the life sciences, including projects such as biosensors.

The centers are currently run by Helmut Kruenes, a former defense minister belonging to the far right Freedom Party (FP)–whose entry into a coalition government in 2000 triggered sanctions from the European Union–as well as a scientific director, Erich Gornik.

The Austrian Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology–which runs the ARC–has commissioned a report from the Malik Management Institute in St. Gallen, Switzerland, on whether the current management structure should be changed to combine the functions of manager and scientific director in one person.

The report will be ready at the end of August or the beginning of September, Stefan Weiss, ministry spokesman told The Scientist this week. He confirmed that the search for a successor to Kruenes, whose contract is due to end on December 31, 2005, has been delayed until the report is ready.

"We are looking into a new structure for Seibersdorf because we want the optimal structure for researchers," he said. "Once we know what kind of structure to give Seibersdorf, the search for the right candidate will begin."

Kruenes is set to join European Union's Security Research Advisory Board, which will be responsible for overseeing the development of technology to protect Europe against terrorism.

Guenther Koch, the former head of Seibersdorf, had strong praise for Gornik, a university professor who is widely respected in the scientific community.

"Gornik has improved the quality of the research," Koch told The Scientist. "He is investing in research and in jobs for researchers. Lots of scientists would like to see him as the one who is put in charge at Seibersdorf."

That view was supported by Peter Skalicky, the rector of the Technical University in Vienna. "I know Professor Gornik very well, and he can do the job of leading Seibersdorf," he told The Scientist. "He is a good scientist and a good manager of scientists."

But according to Koch, Gornik's strategy of focusing more on basic research was being hampered by a lack of funds, but also by the political environment. "I believe a research organization should be totally clean politically, but in Seibersdorf, politics reaches down deep into the lower levels," he said.

Kruenes has come under fire in the local media for creating a Business Services Unit at Seibersdorf when he took over as business manager in 2003, as well as for appointing Martin Graf, a lawyer and member of the extreme right duelling fraternity, Olympia, as its head.

Fraternities with a militaristic and nationalistic tradition have close links with the far right FP in Austria. Last year, a more moderate, mainstream fraction split off from the FP, calling itself the Association for the Future of Austria (BZOe). Gorbach left the FP to join the BZOe, but Graf stayed with the FP.

Relations between Kruenes and Gornik, a highly respected scientist, have been strained. In 2003, Gornik openly criticized Kruenes' decision to found the Business Services Unit. He said that allowing the unit sole access to sensitive data was "madness" and that the unit had too much power within the ARC.

The ARC, which has been split into a number of companies, including, Seibersdorf research GmbH and Nuclear Engineering Seibersdorf, is struggling after a drop in investment from industry, which is supposed to supply one third of the center's funds.

The ministry for transport, which gives the ARC a third of its budget, recently stepped in to make up the shortfall.

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