16. Feb. 2024

Zlatuše Novotná was not only at the birth of the Central European Institute of Technology, but she also spent sixteen years in charge of the project office there and subsequently as coordinator for strategic partnerships and international relations. But now she has decided to change her profession. What advice does she have for new project managers? And what does she take away from her sixteen years at CEITEC?

Let me start from the very beginning – how did you find yourself at CEITEC in the first place?

I came to Masaryk University (MUNI) from the commercial sector with a vision to contribute to the creation of CEITEC, but I didn't plan to stay for the whole sixteen years. The fact that I endured the "cultural change" of adapting to an academic environment and then devoted so many years to the university was also due to the fact that I had the opportunity to carry out interesting development tasks. First as a consultant for the EU Framework Programmes, which was my expertise from the commercial sphere, and then when the Research and Development for Innovation Operational Programme was launched in 2008 and the team preparing the CEITEC project started to take shape, I was put in charge of the business plan for cooperation with industry and other parts of the feasibility study.

What positions did you then hold at CEITEC and what was the scope of your work?

After the establishment of CEITEC MUNI, as head of the grants office I was dedicated to the creation and development of a professional in-house grants "agency" with the aim of getting as much funding as possible for research and bringing in new talent from international sources. And since 2016, as Coordinator for Strategic Partnerships and International Relations, I was mainly responsible for the establishment and management of the international Alliance4Life, CEITEC Institute's participation in the EU-LIFE Alliance and taking care of international relations especially at the EU level.

You were at the birth of the institute. What was the process of its creation? And what was the recipe for its success?

CEITEC was established over a long period of time on the basis of negotiations between many actors, not only within the South Moravian Region. I first heard about it in Brussels, where representatives of the Masaryk University and the South Moravian Innovation Centre (JIC) presented the project. I was really enthusiastic about the vision of CEITEC and when I received an offer from the then Vice-Rector to be part of the event, I did not hesitate. After my experience with various European projects and consortia, I knew that every project can be implemented more or less formally – instruments are bought, new buildings are built, indicators are met, outputs and reports are submitted... or the opportunity can be used in a real way, i.e., to make fundamental and strategic qualitative changes. I believed that CEITEC would take the second path and after these many years it is clear that it has succeeded.

The preparations for such a project must have been intense...?

It certainly was. The preparations for the project gained momentum after a consensus was reached that the project would be led by Masaryk University and a central preparatory team led by Tomáš Hruda and, at the CEITEC MUNI level, a team led by Professor Jaroslav Koča was formed. It was a period of intense cooperation with both directors, with the scientific coordinators of the research programmes and with the university management and it would have been very exhausting if we did not believe that we were creating a unique centre, which was unprecedented in the Czech Republic until then.

I am convinced that in the beginning the recipe for success was the drive and the ability of the partners to come together and negotiate a consensus, to align the interests of many actors. The success was also made possible by the very innovative model of managing a university research institute, where the director is appointed with the power to introduce progressive changes that may be unpopular with scientists and academics, but are absolutely essential for that qualitative change and long-term success internationally.

What are you most proud of during your time at CEITEC? And at the same time – is there anything that you regret that didn't go the way you wanted?

I'm most proud of the grant office, which I had the opportunity to build up and use my previous experience in the European research and innovation environment. But first I had to find funding, i.e., prepare several other projects for EU structural funds and framework programmes, which could have financed the positions of research project managers and offered them motivating conditions not only in terms of salary but also expensive trainings, including trainings abroad.

Some colleagues came from abroad, some had experience of their own scientific careers, but all had a great desire to learn and become the best "project managers". I dare to say that in the period 2011 – 2016 CEITEC MUNI had the best grant office in the Czech Republic, which was reflected in winning many European projects, and in the reputation that our profession gained among scientists.

I am also pleased with the success of Alliance4Life, which CEITEC MUNI leads and where we share our experience and good practice with partners from eleven other CEE countries. It is thanks to this alliance and membership in the Western European EU-LIFE that we can see how far we have come.

And what went wrong?

What went wrong? For some time, I regretted that CEITEC MUNI was not able to keep the original experienced team of the grant office. It was at a time when I was no longer in charge of it, but it was still disappointing. On the other hand, as it happens, nothing is black and white. The core of the team continues to work at Masaryk University in the Rector's Office and the whole university benefits from their services. After all, the area of grant consultancy was not the only area that was successfully introduced first at CEITEC MUNI and then at the university-wide level, and it is this pilot role that modern centres at universities perform excellently.

What do you consider to be the most important personal lesson your career at CEITEC has taught you?

I don't know if you can call it a personal lesson, but I have certainly come to the realisation that the academic environment is very complex and only slowly changing in terms of progressive cultural change. In my position, I tried to develop the profession I call "scientific administration", which is now being promoted by the international professional association EARMA and its Czech branch CZARMA, led from the Masaryk University Rectorate.

Personally, I have never accepted the fact that in the scientific environment all non-scientific positions are automatically classified as "administration", even though they are not office jobs at all, but developmental and strategic positions. We have done a lot to change the perception of scientific administration in terms of its proactive and developmental role, but the potential for improvement is still there.

On the other hand, I realise that the role of ensuring operations and control in the sense of an administrative “back office” is also important for research institutions and universities. However, both roles require completely different types of people and for each we need to create conditions that make people feel comfortable and motivated to do a great job. Gaining respect and appreciation for the work of the administration from scientists and the management of research institutions is still a big challenge not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad.

If you could give advice to people who are currently starting out as grant managers or managers with a focus on internationalising research, what would it be?

First of all, I would advise them to be proactive and not wait in their offices for researchers to come to them. Contact with scientists, including informal meetings, is very important to build relationships and gain trust. In my experience, it is an advantage if the grant manager has a scientific background, but it is not a prerequisite. It is more important to have the project know-how and the stressful burden of relentless deadlines and closures of project calls, to have the courage to insist on input from scientists and partners, i.e., to have management skills. And also, the ability to formulate texts, to speak excellent English, to be familiar with budgeting, to keep abreast of the frequently changing conditions of grant schemes, to be able to negotiate with partners in a diverse cultural environment, etc.

It is a complex and demanding profession. We will see how it will evolve in the future as the use of artificial intelligence develops. My main advice to new managers would be to learn how to compensate for the heavy workload and also to make sure they are working for enlightened management and working with motivated scientists, where the potential for success of a collaborative scientist-manager tandem effort is greatest. Because success breeds success and examples pull.

What was the reason for your decision to leave CEITEC after your long tenure?

Precisely because of that long tenure. Although this year I was awarded another four-year project from Horizon Europe as a researcher and consortium coordinator to ensure the continuation of the Alliance4Life leadership, and as a member of the Director's office I had a stake in the direction of the Institute in the international agenda, I already felt very strongly the need for change and new self-realisation.

I am a development person who enjoys and is motivated to start new things and I have been in the position of Strategic Partnerships Coordinator since 2016. I am really grateful to the management of the institute and the university for recognizing my work even by awarding me the Masaryk University medal, I received many lovely e-mails especially from my colleagues in our alliances and my former grant office. I certainly do not want to break the ties and I am still available as an independent consultant if there is any interest in my services from CEITEC or even from the Czech Republic and abroad.

What are your other personal and career plans in the "post-CEITEC" period?

With a smile, I say that I consider myself a "medicated workaholic" who is trying to slow down the pace of work. But finding the courage to make a big life change and my ambition to rely on my own self-employment will certainly not allow me to be idle.

I want to put my medical education to use and pursue the Spiral Spinal Stabilization® method, a rehabilitation method effective for intervertebral disc prolapse and scoliosis. I already have experience with this method and I like that it is working in motion rather than sitting behind a computer, I am motivated by the straightforward usefulness of seeing immediate results. In fact, I am continuing CEITEC's vision of improving people's health and quality of life, just in a slightly different and more straightforward way.

I run courses not only in this method, but also yoga courses as a teacher and lecturer. I'm open to other opportunities because, as I often say, if we are willing to do our best and then we can let go and not push anything with force, the universe always arranges itself. That's my proven approach that works for me in my work and in my personal life.

Author: Vědavýzkum.cz (JT)

Until the end of last year, Zlatuše Novotná served as the Coordinator of Strategic Partnerships and International Relations of the CEITEC Institute of Masaryk University, as its main representative in the EU-LIFE Alliance and as the coordinator of Alliance4Life. In the period 2009-2011 she participated in the establishment and development of CEITEC, a Centre of Scientific Excellence, where as a member of the management she built and until 2016 led a professional in-house Grant Office as a workplace employing science managers in the field of research project preparation and management. During her time at the university, she capitalized on her experience in coordinating EU Framework Programmes projects and managing multicultural teams, which she had gained since 2002 during her previous career in the commercial sector. Zlatuše Novotná completed her university studies and received her PhD degree from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Brno.

This interview was taken with the permission of VědaVýzkum portal.