Science in Austria – History, scientific fields and career prospects
Home to numerous prestigious universities, scientific academies and research groups, Austria is at the forefront of scientific research and careers in Europe. What are the opportunities and career prospects for a scientist in Austria today?
History of science in Austria
There is a long tradition of scientific excellence in Austria, particularly in the field of physics. The Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien (the precursor to the modern 'Austrian Academy of Sciences') was founded in 1847, and carried out extensive research in a range of scientific disciplines. Important members included the physicist Christian Doppler (famous for his studies on the 'Doppler effect') and Nobel Prize winners Julius Wagner-Jauregg (an expert on the treatment of malaria), Victor Franz Hess (physicist who discovered cosmic rays), and Erwin Schrödinger (theoretical physicist considered the father of wave mechanics).
Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach was one of the most important scientists of the 19th and early 20th century, best known for the Mach number and his studies on shock waves. His theory known as ‘Mach’s principle’ had a profound influence on Einstein, and the roots of the theory of relativity can be traced back to Mach.
Mach had a direct influence on the scientific culture of 20th century Vienna, and in particular the hub of scientific activity at the University of Vienna. The Vienna Circle – a group of philosophers and scientists who met regularly from 1924 to 1936 – was formed at the university. Meetings where chaired by philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, and attracted many of the most distinguished academics of the day, including Otto Neurath and Richard von Mises. In 1936, Schlick was murdered by a former student, bringing to an end the meetings of the Vienna Circle. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, many members of the group were forced to flee the country, leading to the gradual demise of the group.
During the Second World War, many Austrian scientists left the country to pursue careers abroad. Pioneering theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Wolfgang Pauli worked across Europe but eventually felt compelled to move to the United States after failing to obtain Swiss citizenship, while Lise Meitner, part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, worked in Germany before fleeing to Sweden.
After the turmoil of the Second World War, increasing political stability and improvements in the education system created an environment that was more conducive to scientific research. Today, there is a strong incentive for Austrian scientists to remain in the country after they complete their degree, with plenty of career opportunities and growing investment in research.
What role does science play in Austria today?
Austria has an international reputation for excellence in science. The Austrian government considers scientific research a priority, and in 2015 public and private sectors invested approximately €10.1 billion in research, technology and innovation (RTI). With research expenditure accounting for three per cent of GDP, Austria’s investment in research is high above the EU average, and it continues to increase.
According to the European Commission’s Innovation Union Scoreboard (IUS), Austria is one of the most innovative European countries, ranking 7th. The Austrian government aims to establish Austria as a leading European research country by 2020.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a significant increase in research positions and organisations. From 2000 to 2011, the number of people employed in research rose from around 39,000 to more than 61,000. With low unemployment and high rates of expenditure in education and research, it’s no wonder Austria is considered one of the best places to study and pursue a career in science. The growing number of international students enrolled in scientific courses in Austria is a testament to the country’s reputation and burgeoning career opportunities.
International students and researchers have access to an excellent support network through the Austrian Academic Exchange Service (Österreichischer Austauschdienst, OeAD), an organisation that offers funding, training, and a range of other services to assist students and researchers at all levels. As the OeAD aims to improve entry conditions and accessibility to employment, the organisation is a valuable resource for anyone looking to move to Austria from abroad, both short- and long-term.
Which scientific fields are important in Austria?
Austrian universities and research centres focus on a range of scientific studies, including physical sciences, mathematics and computer sciences and life sciences. One of the key research organisations, the internationally renowned Austrian Academy of Sciences, establishes committees for research programmes ranging from geoscience to nuclear fusion, and its mission is to “promote science in every way”, encouraging interdisciplinary exchange.
While all scientific fields are considered important in Austria, life sciences is undoubtedly one of the main growth areas. Vienna is the centre of life sciences in Austria, with facilities such as the Campus Vienna Biocenter, TU Vienna and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) specialising in areas ranging from biomedical engineering to pharmaceuticals. In 2017 there were 554 companies and research institutions working in the life science sector in Vienna, employing nearly 40,000 people.
How is scientific education organised in Austria?
Students interested in a scientific career can choose between public universities, such as the University of Vienna and the University of Innsbruck, or Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen), which offer specialised training in scientific subjects. Students who aim to acquire practical skills that can be applied in the workplace often choose Universities of Applied Sciences and graduate within three years.
Students who study bachelor’s degrees at public universities usually graduate after four to six years, after which they can apply for postgraduate courses. Bachelor’s degrees are taught in German, but an increasing number of universities offer master’s degrees and PhDs in English.
An alternative to the bachelor’s degree is the diploma programme (Diplomstudien), offered by both public universities and Universities of Applied Sciences. Diploma programmes have a similar duration to bachelor’s degrees, and students are awarded a degree known as ‘Magister/Magistra’ or ‘Diplom-Ingenieur/in’, depending on the subject. Students can then progress to a master’s degree.
Austria is an attractive option for PhD candidates for a variety of reasons: well-ranked universities, no fees at public universities provided the PhD is completed on time, good work opportunities post-PhD.
Most degrees cost €366 per term for Austrian citizens, or approximately €700 per term for non-Austrians. The increase in 'academic unemployment' for graduates has not applied to science graduates, who continue to have excellent career opportunities in Austria and abroad.
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Where does scientific research take place in Austria?
Austria is a centre of cutting-edge scientific research, which takes place in universities, research centres and various other organisations. The University of Vienna aims to become one of the leading research universities in Europe, specialising in fields such as life sciences and computer science. The University of Innsbruck also has an excellent reputation for research; in 2016 members of the university produced nearly 4,000 publications.
Outside of universities, some of the best-known research institutes include the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, ÖAW), the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST), and the Austrian Cooperative Research (ACR), who carry out research in a range of fields. Even the Universities of Applied Sciences are catching up in the field of research. They take their legal mandate for applied research seriously. Key areas of scientific research in Austria include life sciences, information and communications technology, the environment and energy, transport, and nano- and micro-technology.