27. May 2019
More than 50 participants attended the National Round Table organised by the Alliance4Life European initiative to discuss the possibilities for improving conditions of Czech science at the national and research institutional levels, and contributing to positive change. Representatives of ministries, the office of the Czech Government, the principal grant agencies, universities, scientific institutions, and individual scientists accepted the invitation to this event.
The conference was organised on behalf of Alliance4Life by CEITEC Masaryk University (Alliance4Life initiator and coordinator), and by another member, FNUSA-ICRC clinical research centre, in cooperation with the Czech Academy of Sciences. The space of the top-floor conference hall in the exceptional historical building of the Czech Academy of Sciences at Národní třída in Prague was arranged into the form of an imaginary round table, thus creating an ambiance for open discussion.
Watch a video from the event.
Need for Structural Change
“If we focus on elements of Czech science separately, it might seem that they are in a better state than before – we have better equipment and quite a good level of financing, and better involvement in international cooperation,” Jiří Nantl, Director of CEITEC Masaryk University, explained in his introductory speech. “Nevertheless, the situation as a whole is not satisfactory. I will dare to name three problems appearing on a systemic level, which have brought us to the current state. The first is the fact that the relative abundance of resources in science, even at times of budget cuts, above all from operational programs, was used for the modernisation of infrastructure, while on the other hand, it helped to avoid a fundamental structural change of the whole system, which would have otherwise been necessary. In the future, there will not be such opportunities, and institutions themselves will be forced to perform the necessary changes,” Nantl added.
As a second problem, he named an overall fragility of Czech research institutions. It is historically determined by way of management, in which some scientists prefer their field of knowledge over loyalty to their institution with a strong management structure. “To a great extent, this is the heritage of the former national system of scientific evaluation, nicknamed ‘coffee grinder,’” Nantl added, stating that institutions with fragmented research now have to build upon their positions in the scientific organisational structure through the top-down approach. “The third problem is that we have lost, or are losing, the middle generation of scientists,” Nantl added. “If they succeed, they are not motivated to implement their ERC grants in the Czech Republic, due to less trust in the system and a lack of willingness to be engaged. The professional strategy of some of the scientists is to “nestle” in their laboratories at the institutional level and perform science on the team level,” Nantl said. “If this thinking pattern prevails, then it creates a threat of the loss of participation in top projects on the European level,” the Director of CEITEC MU stated.
”If we are supposed to successfully work in the fields that we cover, the public has to know about this, in a positive sense, this meaning that the research institutions must be visible in the public space,” Eva Zažímalová, the President of the Czech Academy of Sciences, explained. “That is why we have implemented the AV21 Strategy, in order to horizontally support cooperation among research institutions and we aim to conclude memoranda with various institutions, including ministries.”
She noted that this pressing need was realised by representatives of the Czech Academy of Sciences ten years ago, following a significant reduction of the scientific budget by the government. “The real essence is good-quality people. Predictability, resulting from stable institutional financing and consequent stability of the research system plays a key role,” Zažímalová explained. She added that otherwise, scientists must spend a significant amount of time trying to obtain grants. This is associated with a considerable amount of bureaucracy, leaving only limited time for conceptual work in the field.
Openness, Fairness and Motivation
Alliance4Life Coordinator, Zlatuše Novotná, introduced Alliance4Life recommendations to the participants of the round table. The recommendations were structured into three areas of discussion: openness, fairness, and motivation. These recommendations are the result of almost two years of work of the alliance professionals and management, and reflect the situation in the Central and Eastern European region. “If a positive change in science advancement is to be achieved, all three topics must be developed simultaneously. Openness in science can be understood on many levels, most often as an “open access,” meaning information, results, and data sharing. Fairness is demonstrated by setting up a predictable and transparent career system, preventing inbreeding, and adopting measures to avoid conflict of interest. Motivation is often focused only on financial motivation, but the key is evaluation as an important part of motivation for producing good scientists and good science,” Zlatuše Novotná presented.
Openness should be exemplified in many ways, starting with the principle of so-called open science. This means that scientific results with relevant data and appropriate context (including the method of how they were obtained) should be available for those who need them or who are able to use them for further research that is beneficial for society. Of course, this should be done with full protection of the author’s rights. Nevertheless, openness also means better possibilities for excellent foreign professionals to participate in the management of Czech institutions in which a language barrier is sometimes a constraint, particularly if the institution communicates with them only in Czech.
“In my opinion, fairness of the institution means that it meets the fundamental criteria – it is comprehensible to its environment, as well as to its personnel, and its profile and mission are clear. Within these specifications, it functions for everyone who works in a specific role,” Jiří Nantl explained.
“I would like to refer to the fairness aspect from the point of view that science is a long-term journey. It is necessary to give people space for many years to be able to do something, and to try something without the guarantee that it will achieve any specific goals,” added Pavel Doleček, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.
Regarding the topic of motivation, participants also pointed out the need for simplifying the grant system. “Our scientists’ motivation to participate in competitive European grants is mostly degraded by the excessive bureaucratic burden caused by the fragmentation and frequent changes of national grant schemes. It is not the complexity of the Framework Programme of the EU, but the overall situation that is stalling the system. It causes reluctance of our scientists to participate in prestigious grants, let alone coordinate them,” Zlatuše Novotná added to the discussion.
“The motivation can be summarised in the following words – do not stop us, scientific workers, from performing what we are good at, and do not force us to do something what we are not good at and do incorrectly. The second means bureaucracy and administration,” Eva Zažímalová concluded.
Steps for Improvement
The discussion on structural conditions of Czech science at the institutional and state levels revealed that in the Czech Republic, the role of individual institutions in the organisation of scientific life is weak when compared to Western European countries. This is compensated by various state grant schemes, which often solve needs on the micro level financing of scientific institutions, which, in normal conditions, the state should not care about at all.
The system will work better when there is a clear and stable long-term state policy linked to financing. It will also work better if institutions are sufficiently strategically managed in order to be able to consider their possibilities, priorities, and where will they deliver good performances on the international level.
“Institutional representatives must choose their strategies and communicate within the context of their environment what their institution actually is, how it wants to be, and its mission and profile. Simultaneously, it is necessary to unblock the internal career system, get rid of the heritage of research teams and research agenda, and enable the installation of a scientist as a leader of an independent team during this process,” Jiří Nantl summed up.
It turns out that in most cases, the participants in key decision-making positions are interested in improving the situation, want qualitative change and are willing to implement specific suggestions. For instance, a working group is planned to be established at the national level that will aim for better organisation of grant topics, with participation from representatives of grant providers. Some of these changes already exist and are supported, so the focus should be aimed at extending and fully utilising them. The new Czech science evaluation system called Methodology 17+ can serve as a good basis for this approach.
All suggestions will be included in the form of a final report of this meeting.
Alliance4Life was created at the beginning of 2018 as a unique European initiative that links ten research centres and universities from nine Central and Eastern European countries that are focused on the life sciences. In the Czech Republic, the alliance is represented by two institutions located in Brno – CEITEC Masaryk University and FNUSA-ICRC. Institutions participating in Alliance4Life are working to improve their functions as a whole, the internal cultures of their scientific worksites, management quality, and personnel policy rules.
This year, all Alliance4Life members are organising national round tables in their countries with representatives of ministries, grant providers, and other stakeholders. The goal of these round tables is to present the results and conclusions achieved together and to initiate specific steps to accelerate positive changes at the national level, not only in the fields of medical research and life sciences, but also in science and research in general.
The project “Alliance for Life Sciences: Closing Research and Innovation Divide in the European Union” is a Coordination Action supported by Horizon2020 under the contract 779303.