2021. 07. 05.

A Brief Talk with Donia Lasinger

Donia Lasinger

  • Deputy Managing Director, Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF)
  • Expertise and interest: innovation, strategic development, research and innovation policy, open innovation, gender mainstreaming
  • Co-Change leader of the WWTF Lab
  • Visit on LinkedIn

The Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF) is a private non-profit oriented organization with the goal to promote science and research in Vienna. WWTF funds top scientific research via competitive calls for large research projects or group leaders from abroad that are organized within long-standing thematic programs according to international standards. WWTF established a Co-Change Lab, led by Donia, whom we asked about the "RRI journey" of the organization.

WWTF started to implement RRI aspects years before…

Yes, we were a partner in a four-year EU-funded project named GEECCO in which we were focusing on gender equality. We are a small funding organization, and our funding guidelines haven’t changed significantly in the last 18 years. The funding guideline is the backbone of our funding work. So, in the Co-Change project, we started to impliment RRI principles to these guidelines – we especially focused on open innovation aspects. When we started updating the funding guideline, the first question we had to answer was: where do we put RRI in? We intensively discussed this on our boards. We furthermore installed an expert group, which was formed out of external partners like other research funding organizations (RFOs) and experts in RRI. The consensus was that we should keep it flexible and adapt it to our needs as a local and small player compared to other national and international RFOs. Experts told us there a lot is going on in open innovation, and their advice was to select specific measures that are in line with our needs and our context. 

And you chose open science from the RRI areas.

We discussed all RRI areas and the possibility to include them in the revision of the guideline. We did intensely discuss citizen engagement and learning aspects. Still it became apparent that this is not the focus of our work and that our resources are limited. Nevertheless, we made a small change in the funding guideline to allow for more flexibility: we can only fund researchers from universities. Non-university research institutions, companies and other actors are excluded. However, for specific calls like Digital Humanism or Environmental Systems Research, it could make sense to include organized civil actors. Therefore, we opened up the possibility for certain calls to include such partners. 

How are you working on the open science policy of WWTF now?

As an outcome of the updated funding guideline, we also concentrate on our open access policy in the next phase. This is interesting because a lot is going on in open data, open methods and open access. The next goal for us is to include this in an open science policy. 

We have already conducted - and we will continue making - interviews with researchers, and other funding organizations about what we should include, what's going on in research projects, what other funders do etc. What we have learned will be adapted to our organization. More prominent organizations might be able to try out things as they have more resources and options. We have to be aware of our limits, so instead we need to tailor our open science policy very well to our context. For instance, while I was talking to the Welcome Trust, who already tried out several things for quite a long time (e.g. they have a long-standing policy around open access to research publications, additional funds for open access costs, specific funding schemes like the Open Research Fund or the Research Enrichment program), I learned a great deal about potential problems they were facing at the beginning of the implementation of such new funding schemes, e.g. less participation than expected.

Furthermore, they were in the process of reframing their strategy and also looking at their funding schemes. Even if these organizations differ in size and context, we can learn a lot about their experiences and progress. So what we are doing at the moment is looking at what's out there and where we should adapt our standards.

What could researchers you interviewed add to the future open science policy of WWTF?

The question is the following: how open should we be? Openness per se is not a goal in itself. It should lead somewhere, and it should be well thought-through. It soon can become very complex, asking for very detailed and long data management plans or data sets to be included, for example. Nevertheless, it should be clear why this is important and to what extent. It might be more relevant for certain topics than for others. These are all questions that need to be answered first. 

Is it enough for your organization to change the funding guideline or do you need to do something else to make it work?

I think changing the funding guideline and other policy and strategy documents is one of the most fundamental things we could do as an organization. For this, we need the approval of all the decision bodies, as well as the understanding of all employees who have to work with them and who organize and operate the funding calls. Furthermore, all applicants need to be informed excessively about changes and why they are implemented. So I think this is the essential task to do as it will mean both cultural and structural change within our organization. 

Do you have any idea how the applicants might react to your new guideline or policies?

This is one of the main things in the discussions with our board of directors and our advisory board. Altough we look inside and at how we operate as an organization, we also need to think about the external experts. They are helping us with deciding and selecting proposals as well as about our applicants. For every change we make, we need to consider the whole funding cycle. We collected valuable experiences in our EU-funded project GEECCO in which we were working on gender equality: we changed some application details. We included gender in content as new decision criteria. We, therefore, also adapted our decision process. Fortunately, applicants are already not unfamiliar with this new criterion as we were not the first to insert it. We also worked closely with the universities, who also gave much support to the applicants. And I can assume it will be the same with open science aspects, as we are not the first movers, and we will try to design it in a very smart and well-structured way. 

Can you mention some main points from your new policy?

At the moment, specific open access policies are already in place. For example, if they need money for open access publications, they can do this in the project grant. At the moment, we test issues like open methods (when researchers have to publish details about the methodology) or open data (data they're using, data management plans, how they will use the data, etc.)

You are in the middle of your work on the Co-Change project. What would you highlight as the main learning point so far?

I would highlight that one should take the time to learn from others, to see what worked well, what did not. If you just look on the websites of organizations having an open access/science policy, it looks fantastic. When you talk to the people instead, they will tell you what didn't work out. The goal is no to reinvent the wheel: look around and get to know the lessons learned from others. 

Another main message here is to adapt the new aspects to your own context truly. I think that we cannot just copy structures, processes, grants etc. from other organizations because they operate in different environments, have different strategies in place, differ in size or have different legal foundations. It doesn’t work the same way for everyone.

Developing a guideline, I presume, is not enough to make sure that open science or gender equality will be really incorporated into your work. So, when the guideline and policy are ready, how can you make them really work?

I think the most important part has already started: it's the communication internally and externally. Internally means talking with the decision bodies and with colleagues. And we started the communication externally with experts and applicants as well. This will lay the foundation to inform our context of what might be changed in our guideline. We will do it in the same way as we did with our changes regarding gender equality. We want them to know that this is important for us and clarify how we understand open science.