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Dobry den, Ceská Republika!

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 06/2011




(Photo: iStockphoto/courtyardpix)

Hundreds of castles, a wide range of famous beer brands and historic Prague play a major part in making the Czech Republic a popular tourist destination. In contrast, it is currently no top draw for scientists from abroad but EU funds and ongoing reforms may get things rolling in the future.

Science and education have a long tradition in the territory of today’s Czech Republic. Charles University in Prague is one of Europe’s oldest universities. Scientific highlights include Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance or Jan Purkyně’s identification of sweat glands and other histological structures (e.g. the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum, named after him). Only insiders may be aware of Milan Hašek, who was unfortunately not considered for the 1953 Nobel Prize after publishing his findings on immune tolerance in a Czech journal, or Jan Janský, whose classification of human blood into four groups remained largely unnoticed at the time of their publication (1907). More recently, Antonín Holý discovered potent antiviral substances that were brought to the market by US-based Gilead Sciences.

Background

The departure from Communism in the early 1990s was accompanied by radical economic and social changes. Research funds and, subsequently, research capacity collapsed. Over the last decade, the conditions for research have improved to some extent. However, in absolute terms, the Czech Republic is most often found in the lowest quintile of all European countries. Here, Lab Times will report on the latest efforts of the Czech Republic to get the most out of its limited resources.

The modern history of the Czech Republic started in the year 1918, when Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between 1939 and 1945 it was partially occupied by Germany and became a Communist State in 1948. Liberalisation and democratisation efforts, which were referred to as the Prague Spring, were aborted by the invasion of members of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Thereafter, the Czech and the Slovak Socialist Republic formed the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia, ČSSR. Democracy was restored by the 1989 Velvet revolution. In early 1993, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic became two independent countries. Nowadays, the Czech Republic has a population of 10.5 million citizens and has become a multi-party parliamentary representative democracy. It is member of the European Union, NATO and the OECD.

Compared with other post-Communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the Czech Republic is one of the most stable and developed. The Global Competitiveness Index 2010/2011 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) puts the Czech Republic at rank 36 among 139 analysed countries. In this report, the Czech Government received very poor marks for the transparency of policymaking, the burden of regulations and wastefulness of governmental spending. Good grades were obtained for high tertiary enrolment rates, the capacity for innovation and the quality of maths and science education. The economy experienced high growth rates between 2000 and 2007. Major trading partners are Germany, Slovakia and Poland. Main industries include motor vehicles, general machine building, iron and steel production and various others. Škoda was one of the leading industrial conglomerates in Europe and transformed, in the 20th century, from a manufacturer of arms into a highly diversified company producing automobiles, ships, aircraft or steam turbines. It became government-owned in 1978 and was completely privatised in the last decade.

Scientific strongholds

Fermentation, production of antibiotics and genetic engineering are traditional scientific strongholds in the Czech Republic, which is also one of the three top European producers of genetically modified crops. There are more than 100 biotech companies operating in the Czech Republic. More than half of the companies are either located in the Prague region or South Moravia. Prime examples include BioVendor, the Contipro group or EXBIO Praha. For example, Bio­Vendor was the first company to develop an ELISA kit that greatly improved the likelihood of artificial insemination and the Contipro Group accounts for a 30% share of the world market in purified hyaluronan. Many foreign pharmaceutical companies including Lonza Biotec, Baxter International or Sanofi-Avensis have opened production or research and development facilities in the Czech Republic. Biotech companies will also benefit from the ongoing €430 million TIP programme, a programme of the Ministry of Industry and Trade supporting collaboration between business and academia, and the new €250 million measure “Competence Centres”. About 35 Competence Centres, consisting of at least three enterprises and one public research organisation, will be financed until 2019 and should intensify the cooperation and output in fields with strong application potential.

Czech performance

How is the Czech Republic doing when it comes to scientific output and international rankings? Thomson Reuters just published an analysis of Czech publications during the recent five-year period. The overall share of the Czech Republic in all publications worldwide was about 0.7% and was highest for publications in Plant & Animal Sciences and Space Science.

With respect to citations per paper, three fields were above world average: Engineering, Environment/Ecology and Clinical Medicine. In the SCImago journal and Country Ranking, the Czech Republic was at rank 30 for number of publications and on spot 34 for citations. Within Eastern Europe the Czech Republic was only outpaced by Russia and Poland concerning the number of publications and by Estonia and Hungary with respect to citations per document. The overall number of patent applications and the number of patent applications in the high technology sector is far below the EU average.

The Charles University of Prague (CU) is the only Czech university popping up among the 300 world-best universities. Together with Lomonosov Moscow State University and St. Petersburg University, CU is among the three primary universities in Eastern Europe. In the latest QS evaluation, CU was 267th in the overall ranking and also represented in Natural Sciences (134th) and Life Sciences (269th). Additional universities appeared in sub-rankings as indicated: the Czech Technical University of Prague (Engineering & IT, Natural Sciences) and the Brno University of Technology (Engineering & IT). In the SCIMAGO Life Sciences ranking, the four highest rated universities were CU in Prague (194th), Masaryk University in Brno (645th), University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice (697th) and Palacký University in Olomouc (887th).

The Czech research system

The research system in the Czech Republic is directed predominantly at the national level. The National Strategic Framework Programme (2007-2013) or the National Policy of Research, Development and Innovation (2009-2015) provide not only a self-assessment of the status quo but also an outlook on the future. The Czech Republic is not unfamiliar with the challenges other post-Communist countries are also facing: brain drain, an over-aged scientific community, out-dated infrastructure or under-funding. Additional identified problems are: the lack of priority setting and coordination of research and its funding, the predominance of institutional versus competitive funding, the poor number of research institutions with high international reputation and visibility, the missing support for scientific excellence, insufficient applied research and commercialisation activities as well as meagre participation in international R&D programmes. Two efforts have had some impact on the research system in the Czech Republic in recent years: the Reform of the System of Research, Development and Innovation, which was finally approved in March 2008, and the European Economic and Cohesion Policy with its needs to develop a national strategy and necessary structures in order to receive EU funds.

The 2008 Reform sparked heated debates among scientists. They were not only concerned about the sudden emphasis on funding of research accommodating the business sector but also on the novel output-based allocation system for institutional core funding. In charge of the reform was and still is the Council for Research, Development and Innovation (RVVI). RVVI is the main body for long-term research strategies and is chaired by the Czech Prime Minister. RVVI prepares laws concerning research and development (R&D) as well as the draft for the annual R&D budget and mid-term budget forecasts. It publishes an annual report on achievements and trends in Czech R&D and maintains a database on research projects, institutional research plans and tenders (www.isvav.cz). The database is also the basis for the criticised assessment methodology used to calculate the annual amount of institutional core funding. The coarse point-based method counts publications, patents and other output items of the past five-year period. It does not take into account any impact, e.g. citations to publications, nor the peculiarities of individual research institutions or scientific fields. RVVI has been criticised by scientists for its inefficiency and its transformation into a “Mini-Ministry of Science”. Prime Minister Petr Nečas also complained last year that RVVI has become a battleground of interest groups, who have lost their focus on improving the Czech R&D system and threatened to recruit new members.

Research, development & innovation

Besides RVVI, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MŠMT) is the second major player in the Czech Republic. Core responsibilities include large research infrastructures, institutional financing of research activities at universities and other public research organisations, administration of the thematic National Research Programmes and R&D activities in frame of the European Cohesion Policy. Moreover, it is in charge of international cooperation. Other ministries including the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture are responsible for a couple of cross-sectional programmes and the funding of institutions within their line of action. Main funding agencies are the Czech Science Foundation (GACR) for basic research and the novel Technology Agency (TACR) for applied research. A total of 60% of all R&D funds are spent in the business sector. The Czech Republic is one of the EU countries with the highest relative investment by multinational companies including Siemens, IBM and TEVA Pharmaceuticals. In the public sector, research institutions including those of the Academy of Sciences and of individual ministries received more public R&D funds than the universities.

Between 2000 and 2007, the Czech Republic was one of the EU countries with the highest growth rates concerning R&D expenditures. Since 2008, previously announced increments of research funds have amounted to less, primarily due to dwindling revenue from exports. In 2011, about 1.5 % of the Czech Republic gross domestic product is being invested in R&D, which is less than the EU average of 2%. The provisional state budget for R&D for 2012 and the financial outlook for the two following years were recently released. With €1.07 billion, the 2012 budget remains at the previous year’s level and no major changes have been announced for the following years. If one looks into the details, some changes in accordance with the reform are notable: competitive funding will continue­ to rise until 2014 by increasing the annual budget of the grant agency for basic research from the current €100 million by 40% and by tripling the present €35 million budget for the Technology Agency. In turn, institutional core funding will be further reduced. The direct appropriation to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (2011: €429 million) and to the Academy of Sciences (2011: €200 million) will be further cut by 5% by 2014.

European affairs

The Czech Republic is to receive €27 billion from Brussels by 2013 in frame of the European Economic and Cohesion Policy. Most of the money will be used to improve the environment and transport infrastructure. But some billions are also earmarked for research and education and will be utilised, for example, to upgrade research infrastructure and quality of tertiary education at universities. Since Prague is already considered “wealthy” according to EU criteria, its scientists and institutions are not directly benefiting from the majority of funds. The operational programme “Research and Development for Innovation” is expected to create 2,500 new R&D jobs. Noteworthy is the measure through “European Centres of Excellence”. A limited number of these centres with modern infrastructure and international visibility will be established. As soon as they are in full operation, they may provide a well-equipped working environment that will definitely draw the interest of students, expats and scientists from abroad. In the first round, nine applications were selected at the national level. Five projects requested more than €50 million and needed authorisation by the European Commission. BIOCEV, the Biotechnology and Biomedicine Centre of the Academy of Sciences and Charles University in Vestec, close to Prague, is still waiting for clearance, whereas CEITEC, the Central European Institute of Technology in Brno, got its go-ahead and is expected to be fully operational around 2014. CEITEC will initiate research programmes in Molecular Medicine, Structural Biology, Plant Genomics and Proteomics, Nanotechnology and Neuroscience.

Another excellence centre, which just received approval to invest €100 million from EU funds, is the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) of the St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno. An additional €80 million are being provided by MŠMT, the Ministry of Health and other sources until 2015. The centre is focussing on the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular and neurological diseases. Construction of the new building will be finished in late 2012. Several technology and service platforms as well as research programmes have already been established. ICRC has reached partnership agreements with leading international institutions including the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, USA. Research programmes will be guided by an international director, coming from a cooperating institution and a local coordinator. “We are able to provide competitive salaries with performance incentives and offer a transparent system for career development”, says Sarka Urbankova, a spokesperson of the hospital. “The unique concept of the ICRC with its international multidisciplinary research teams and flexible laboratories and the collaboration with the application sector will make it possible to attract the best researchers and most talented students.”

In EU Framework Programmes and additional European programmes, the Czech Republic is not particularly active and successful. Internationalisation efforts are primarily focused on bilateral and a few multilateral R&D agreements. Main partners with respect to the number of international scientific co-publications are Germany, the UK, France, Italy and the Slovak Republic. The Czech Republic has been a full member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) since 1993, the European Molecular Biology Conference since 1995, the European South Observatory since 2007 and the European Space Agency since 2008. The Czech Republic will very soon host a large European Infrastructure project: the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) Beamline Facility in Dolní Břežany, 20km­ south of Prague. The laser facility shall generate ultra-short pulses being a thousand times more intense than previous ones and lead to new technologies and methods with respect to medical imaging, disease diagnosis and new materials. Its construction is supported by the EU with €300 million.


According to a Czech proverb, Pivo dělá hezká těla - Beer makes beautiful bodies. It can also provide some beautiful research ideas. See Research Letter in LT 3/2008. (Photo: iStockphoto/Jirkab)

Czech Science Foundation

The Czech Science Foundation or GACR (Grantová agentura České republiky) is the main provider of competitive funds for basic research. It was established in 1992 as an independent funding agency. Supported are five broad areas: Medicine/Biology, Natural Sciences, Agriculture/Environment, Engineering/Technical Sciences and Social Sciences/Humanities. GACR is administered by a five-member presidium, which is appointed by the Government. Thirty-nine panels with a total of 400 Czech experts are in charge of reviewing the 3,000 proposals for new projects each year. Funding decisions are taken by the presidium and are based on a final ranking by the five Discipline Committees after peer review by the panels and reviewers from abroad. More than three-quarters of the annual €100 million budget are earmarked for so-called Standard Projects. They are funded for up to five years with an average of €38,000 per year. There is one call with a deadline in April each year. On average and across all disciplines, every fourth proposal survives the competition. Postdoc Projects are funded for up to three years at an average of €14,000 per annum. Applicants may apply within four years after obtaining their doctoral title. In 2010, 500 standard and 141 postdoc grants were awarded.

A call for projects of excellence has been announced for the very first time this year. The aim of the programme is to foster long-term (up to seven years) cooperation of leading-edge research teams from different institutions. According to Radka Smrzova­ from GACR, 160 proposals have been submitted and about 25 are to be financed. In addition, GACR is in charge of bilateral grant projects together with the German Research Council (DFG), the National Science Council of Korea (KRF) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC). Furthermore, GACR is member of the European Science Foundation and the European Heads of Research Councils; it is involved in the ERA-NET scheme “Infrastructure Funding in Life Sciences”.

Czech Academy of Sciences

The most prominent basic research performer is the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (ASCR). Its origins date back to the Royal Czech Society of Sciences, which was established in 1784. ASCR operates its own 53 research institutions and more than 50 joint workplaces in cooperation with higher education institutions. It has about 7,500 employees, out of which 2,700 are classified as scientists. ASCR scientists earned, on average, €1,875 per month last year.

In 2010, ASCR managed a total budget of €400 million. About half is allocated as institutional core funding directly from the public R&D budget. A quarter is derived from foreign resources or revenue from its institutes and the rest from other public sources. Between 2006 and 2010, the Academy contributed to more than 25% of publications and 40% of citations of Czech origin on the basis of Thomson Reuters' Web of Science. However, the ASCR is more than a research performer: it is also an advisory body, publisher and research training provider. Scientists of the Academy participate in education, particularly through doctoral programmes and teaching at universities. In 2010, more than 4,600 students including 2,150 PhD students were supervised at ASCR institutions. The ASCR grant agency GAAV, which has been providing support for junior and standard grants as well as for projects within targeted programmes, became a victim of the 2008 reform and is being abolished. The termination was justified with the necessity to reduce the overall number of grant making bodies in the Czech Republic.

Internationalisation by bilateral agreements is another main focus of the Academy. Altogether, there are 67 agreements with partners from 50 countries. The Internal Aid for International Cooperation programme provides support for foreign scientists to stay at ASCR institutes or for international cooperative projects up to three years. The Purkyně Fellowship is earmarked for outstanding scientists below the age of 40, either nationals working abroad for an extended time or of non-Czech origin. Candidates are proposed by the director of the hosting institution and up to five fellowships are awarded per year. Salary and research expenses are covered for up to five years. ASCR performed its own evaluation exercise last year, which differed greatly in comparison to the national one. It is still under discussion as to how the outcome will influence the future structure and direction of the ASCR. With recent budget cuts and diminished support by the Government, who wants to push research at universities and reduce institutional funding, it is high time to further downsize and to take a more focused approach. If you are interested in the scientific activities of the institutes of the Section of Biological and Medical Sciences, you may find some details in the annual ASCR Report.

Czech universities

Tertiary education is provided by 26 public and 45 private institutions in the Czech Republic. Student numbers have grown rapidly and about 400,000 students are currently enrolled at universities. The percentage of international students is below 10%: Slovaks account for two-thirds, followed by Russians and Ukrainians. The number of courses taught in English is quite low but on the rise. Foreign students have to give proof that they are able to follow Czech courses.

The university sector has been hit by austerity measures and budgetary contributions per student dropped by almost one fifth in 2011. To fill empty coffers the introduction of tuition fees, about €830 per year starting from 2013, is under discussion. Debates on reforming the university sector have been ongoing for years without any major breakthrough. The landmark report “White Paper on Tertiary Education 2009” recommended to increase the autonomy of universities, to change public financing from input (overall number of students) to output (number of students obtaining a degree and additional qualitative parameters), to introduce an improved financial support system for students and to fully implement the Bologna process.

The Charles University in Prague (CU, www.cuni.cz) is one of Europe’s oldest universities in continuous operation. It was founded by King Charles IV in 1348 and was split into two independent universities in 1882, offering the full spectrum of education either for Czechs or Germans. The German university was dissolved in 1945. Nowadays, CU has 17 faculties and a number of centres and institutes for education and science and operates on an annual €330 million budget. Notable alumni include Jan Purkyně, who, as mentioned above, discovered the Purkinje cells and also coined the terms “plasma” and “protoplasma”, Jaraoslav Heyrovský, who was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1959, and Carl and Gerty Cori, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1947 for their work on carbohydrate metabolism. Close to 50,000 students including 7,000 doctoral students are enrolled at Charles University, which is quite active in international cooperation. This year, the first call for 30 fellowships in frame of the STARS programme was published in Nature. It is a new programme of the Faculty of Science to Support Talented PhD Research Students and wants to attract the best domestic and foreign students. Successful students receive a State-financed fellowship: €250 per month in the first year. In addition, €400 are contributed each month by STARS and the project supervisor may add some extras on top. STARS students may participate in soft skills training, methods courses and teaching of Bachelor and Master students. The next call will be published early next year.


Children's TV favourite Pan Tau would be a great real-life­companion for scientists, too. By just tapping and stroking the brim of his magical hat, he's able to make all things possible. Now, wouldn't that be a nice touch in the lab?

More funding opportunities

If you want to know more about Czech funding opportunities for foreigners, there are primarily three sources: the mobility portal EURAXESS of the Czech Republic, the section “International Affairs” on the web page of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, as well as local sources such as international offices of larger universities and research institutions. EURAXESS is a good starting point and local offices providing advice have been set up in the major Czech cities. Besides quite useful tips for daily life, you may scroll through the list of funding opportunities for incoming researchers or download the Foreign Researcher’s Guide.

As already mentioned, the Czech Republic has many bi- or multilateral agreements in research and education. Details highly vary from one to the other country. Examples for bilateral agreements are SCIEX-NMSCH promoting scientific cooperation with Switzerland and the 'Aktion' Programme fostering staff exchange with Austrian universities. Multilateral programmes are, for example, the International Visegard Fund, which provides amongst other options incoming fellowships for Master and PhD students heading to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland or Slovakia, and CEEPUS, the Central European Exchange Programme for University Studies. The Development Assistance Programme of the Czech Republic is awarding fellowships to 250 students from East Europe and specific countries in Asia, Africa and South America.

An interesting new programme at the regional level is the South Moravian Program for Distinguished Researchers, called SoMoPro. It is an initiative to attract researchers from abroad to local universities or GACR institutes in South Moravia with its capital Brno. The programme is limited to Natural and Technical Sciences. Non-Czechs may benefit from incoming and ex-pats from reintegration grants. The €4 million programme is co-financed to 40% by Marie-Curie actions (COFUND) and provides living, family and travel allowances as well as a contribution to research and overhead costs. Applicants either need a doctoral title or at least four years of experience in research after obtaining a title qualifying to start a doctorate. In the first two rounds, 61 applications were made; of these 20 foreign and seven Czech scientists have been selected. Financial contribution will be granted for a period between 12 and 36 months. The next call for applications will be published in spring 2012.

MŠMT just announced two additional measures: ERC CZ and RETURN. Full details have recently been released but were not yet available at the time of going to press. ERC CZ primarily intends to address scientists, whose project was positively evaluated by the European Research Council but not supported due to budget limits. They will receive funds to establish their project at a Czech university. RETURN allows researchers after a long-term stay at a foreign institution to establish a research team with up to seven members at a Czech institution. With a total budget of €21 million, which is earmarked for about 30 scientists for a three- to five-year period, RETURN will provide a significant amount of funding. The programme is running until 2019 and four calls are planned.

A glimpse at Slovakia

The development of the Slovak Republic after gaining independence has many parallels with the Czech Republic. For example, public funding of research collapsed after 1993 and led to the closure of research institutions and a 40% reduction in the number of researchers. Nowadays, Slovakia is among the EU countries with the lowest R&D intensity and its funding agencies are among the poorest in Europe. Earlier this year, the Government asked the European Commission to re-allocate about €180 million of EU funds earmarked for research infrastructure to the building of highways. The already bad conditions for science and education are intensified by ongoing austerity measures, which also testify that research and education are no top priorities in Slovakia. The main player in the Slovak research system is the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic (www.minedu.sk). It is the central body for the development and implementation of science and technology policies and evaluation. The Council of the Government of the Slovak Republic for Science & Technology is the principal advisory body. Institutional funding prevails. Major funding agencies are RDA and VEGA. The Research and Development Agency (RDA) has become the most important funding agency for competitive research grants in Slovakia and its budget amounted to €40 million in 2009. The Science Grant Agency (VEGA) supports primarily basic research and had a budget of €12.5 million in 2008. Main research performers include the Slovak Academy of Sciences (www.sav.sk), universities and a couple of State sector research and development organisations.

The Slovak Academy of Sciences has more than 50 research institutes and employs about 1,800 researchers as well as 500 PhD students. In 2009, its budget amounted to €63 million. There are 23 public and ten private universities in Slovakia. In the latest SCImago ranking the top three Slovakian universities are the Comenius University and the Slovak University of Technology, both located in Bratislava, and the Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice. If you are interested in funding opportunities in the Slovak Republic, the Slovak Academic Information Academy (SAIA, www.saia.sk) and Euraxess Slovakia (www.euraxess.sk) may be helpful.

Outlook

The Czech Republic has just started drawing more attention to education and science. Boosting research at universities, underpinning competitive research funding programmes and the implementation of nationwide evaluations are no bad starting points. Many Czech scientists share these objectives but are not satisfied with the way in which they are implemented. They do not want lip service but continuity, once decisions have been made and a reliable long-term strategy beyond annual budget cycles or election periods. Progress seems to have been made concerning the transparency of funding decisions. Other scientists are worried that solid, basic research will be abandoned in favour of half-cooked programmes labelled “innovative” and “of commercial relevance”. The establishment of European Centres of Excellence including BIOCEV, CEITEC and ICRC is in progress. They are expected to be fully operational within a short time and supposed to crank up Czech Life Sciences and Biomedical Research. It remains to be seen, whether they will be able to maintain themselves without EU funds. In contrast to the past, more funding opportunities accommodating ex-pats as well as scientists from abroad are in place. For the Czech Republic it is now important to back the right horses and to find the one or other additional Czech koruna to support those scientists, who are able to deliver.

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