Rigid Environment is the Worst Adversary, Says Petr Dvořák

For eight years Professor Petr Dvořák was in charge of research and doctoral studies as a vice-rector of MUNI. What improved during this time and what, on the other hand, are the weakest points of Czech science? According to Mr Dvořák, these are mainly the half-hearted quality requirements and the environment that only reluctantly accepts new people and ideas.

6 Nov 2019 Iveta Zieglová

How do you feel after handing over your office? Do you feel any relief?

I still have a lot of responsibility so it was not such a huge change, now I just have fewer obligations. But eight years was enough.

Should you look back at your work as the vice-rector for science and research, what did you manage to improve at MUNI?

Rector Bek gave us plenty of leeway and trust which meant we were able to come up with new ideas. Before, there was not any in-house grant agency, no MASH, no research ethics committee, „research evaluation“ was based purely on the Information Registry of R&D Results, there was no International Scientific Advisory Board, we had limited access to scientific literature, there were no postdocs, we did not have any lectures by international stars, we did not discuss equipment purchases across departments… all this was introduced during those 8 years. Science naturally depends mostly on the scientists and I was lucky enough to witness the foundation of CEITEC and other large projects during which a number of great people came. Unfortunately, a continuous supply of new, motivated people is something we are still lacking. Czech institutions are generally not prepared for this. In my opinion, Czech science was pushed forward by two waves of experts. The first one came a few years after the revolution when first talented postdocs returned with experience from abroad. The second wave came with European funds and RDI projects. Science is first and foremost about people. The equipment comes second.

Why can’t we make our science more international?

The system is too closed. Of course, we still cannot pay the best scientists, but even if we get them here, the environment is not very friendly. First they come across our embassies abroad, then the Foreign Police ruffle their feathers a bit and in the end, they find out that many things are simply „impossible“ here. It is not easy to get foreign scientists with their families to the Czech Republic and only the strongest stay. We don´t have a reputation of a foreigner-friendly country which is necessary for science. Then there is the anti-immigrant frenzy, scientists are often lumped together with economic migrants. It cannot work this way. Science has to be international. Nowadays, Czech science is indisputably held up by our people who came back from top international institutions. If one wants to outgrow something, it is best to draw inspiration from the environment you want to grow into.

What challenges await your successors?

They should be on good terms with the new system of research evaluation. The new methodology is not a slot machine for points but a real quality competition. Turning a blind eye to something just to make everybody happy can never be an option especially if we know what improves the quality and reputation of the university. For every manager, it is difficult to be in an institution that is, from the point of view of international science, largely average or below-average while advocating that progress has to be built upon hyper-successful teams. Every vice-rector is bound to hit a roadblock there. But one has to keep trying. Otherwise, we can plan our rise through the ranks over and over again but it will always stay just on paper.

For the last four years, you were also responsible for technology transfer. How are we doing in this field?

The Czech environment, as stated correctly also by the new Innovation Strategy, is not entirely friendly towards business activities of academicians. It is often considered suspicious and financially risky for the university which means there is not much support for it. However, universities should do their best to be useful and if there is a way to do so through science, it is an ideal combination. Better than anything else. Universities have to be willing to take certain risks; also, they  should perhaps be a bit less „democratic“ when deciding what is worth supporting.

Universities tend to be rather cautious when it comes to spin-offs. There is a concern that good  scientists will leave to do business. Do you share these doubts?

Spin-offs are generally started by experienced people which means such companies are very probably based on quality scientists and know-how. I think it is far more likely that a great scientist who is behind it all will stay in academia and pass their know-how and jurisdiction to someone else in the company. And even if they do leave, it is a risk one has to take. It is not the end of the world and new people with new ideas will come. The worst thing is a rigid environment that fends off anything new. Unfortunately, this is another severe hindrance for Czech science.

What innovation ecosystem do you think would be the best inspiration for us?

For example, the Belgian one in Gent or Leuven is quite compatible. Our campus is an ideal place for starting a large incubator modelled on the Belgian system with all the support that would attract companies and let everyone know we are ready. I am afraid that if we do not do something like this in the next five years, we will have missed the chance.

What are you planning next?

At the end of the year, I will also retire as head of department I have been here for a long time and it is time for fresh blood. I will soon terminate my activities in Prague as well. I want to retire on time, while I am still on top, so to speak. Dynamic institutions have a maximum period set after which one has to be replaced by someone new. Here, many people spend their entire lives building these little kingdoms fighting tooth and nail to keep them. I told myself I didn´t want to end up like this, I will rather take up bee-keeping.

prof. Ing. Petr Dvořák, CSc. (*1956)

  • Professor in the field of molecular biology and genetics; he can claim more than 80 original scientific articles and almost 4500 citations
  • Head of the Department of Biology at the Faculty of Medicine, MUNI
  • First vice-chairman of the Research, Development and Innovation Council
  • Worked as a scientist at top institutions in Japan and France (1990–1994)

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