Something is rotten in the academia of the Czech Republic.

  • UPDATE – Sep 27, 2017; Interview with “The Bond”, internal bulletin on IOCB news, by Barbora Fričová, Head of Communications Internal Communication. [Download]
  • UPDATE – Jun 7, 2017; This blogpost was picked up by CzechCompete (managed by the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic). [Link]
  • UPDATE – Jun 6, 2017; This blogpost was covered by Martin Rychlik in the Czech issue of “Lidové noviny”. [Link]
  • UPDATE – Jun 6, 2017; Martin Rychlik (Lidové noviny) has written a comment on this blogpost. [Link]

In Nov 2015, “Lidové noviny” (“Mladý vědec hledá „náhradu” křemíku”) has graciously reported on how Charles University has acquired my ERC Starting Grant worth 1.4 Million EUR. Now – two years later – I am very sad and unhappy to have to outline how and why the Czech Republic will lose this grant again.

“Young academics”. There is no cohesive concept across the Czech Republic of what constitutes academic independence, and how it is attained. Repeatedly, I was asked by colleagues from the Czech Academy of Science and Czech universities how “their PostDocs can get ERC Starting Grants.” The answers is they cannot. Not unless they have an independent publication track record, and their position is financially independent from an already existing group.

One of the innovative schemes that was established at Charles University and that attracted me and two other young scientists in 2013 – a tenure track professorship program – now faces an uncertain future under a new leadership that does not attribute much value to defined, independent career pathways. The tenure track program at Charles University was built on international competition and peer-review of candidates. Too often positions in the Czech Republic are given to “best drinking buddies” agreed upon by “old men’s clubs”.

GA ČR Juniorské Projekty was intended as an instrument to promote academic and financial independence. In its current form, however, “GA ČR Juniorské Projekty” requires that team members are named before the project is even granted. The only way, how a young academic can fill their team before getting funding to pay for it, is by metastasising out of an already-existing research group. This is a guarantee for nepotism and cronyism at the host institution. It also bodes ill for the next generation: Not because they see the established system as right – many of these young academics have seen better academic management abroad. No – these young academics – without impartial, benevolent guidance – will go the path that is already laid out before them and that seemed to work for their academic masters.

Excellence. Operační program Výzkum, vývoj a vzdělávání (OP VVV) is running several initiatives to fund “excellent research” (“excelentní výzkum”). The Ministry of education youth and sports (MŠMT ČR) is operating the “INTER-EXCELLENCE” program. There are several “Centres of Excellence” operated by GA ČR. A ubiquity of “excellence” yet, the European Commission finds in their 2014 report that “[despite] a public R&D intensity of 0.86 %, clearly higher than the EU average, the level of scientific excellence remains markedly lower than the EU average and is not catching up.” [Link] Academics across the Czech Republic are under the delusion that they can “all be excellent”, and Czech funding bodies are spreading their funds around like water with a watering can. Everyone gets his or her equal share of mediocrity.

We cannot be all equally “excellent”. It is a painful lesson learned in the 80s and 90s at German universities also. After decades of declarations that all German universities were equally good, no single university had a prominent, international profile, and not one German university was in the Top 50 World University Rankings (Times Higher Education) until 2005. In 2017, and as a result of 1.9 Billion EUR of funding over 4 years to 9 selected institutions – there are now 3 German universities in the Top 50. To this day, there is not one Czech institution in these rankings. There is a clear lack of competitive, analytical infrastructures – with the exception of some regional centres (e.g. RCPTM in Olomouc), and Czech universities have completely missed the trend that dominates policy in universities in the United Kingdom: If you have few resources, you have to pool them together; a lesson understood by chronically underfunded Queen Marry University in London that has pooled analytical infrastructure from all natural sciences into a jointly managed, and hence maintainable facility that is accessible to all scientists at this (now) Russel Group university – a group of the 24 leading UK universities. In the Czech Republic, on the other hand facilities that were paid for by public money are considered the private property of the Professor who presides over them. This extends to ridiculous examples, where Czech academics only open up publicly owned analytical infrastructure to other scientists after a “deal” regarding monetary contribution for upkeep or attribution in a publication for the most simple of service tasks.

Here, it is absolutely vital that Czech academia understands the importance of an international CV. Many institutions are playing catch-up with methods and trends that they learn about from literature. This is not enough. What is “mainstream” academic literature right now was pioneered 5-10 years ago. Returning PostDocs to the Czech Republic need to bring in the knowledge about the cutting edge of research, before established, old Professors can make out trends from things they read.

Tribalism. Members of the Faculty of Science at the Charles University and many other institutions are engaged heavily in publishing in journals that are considered predatory and fake by the wider academic community. Officially there is consensus that such practices are undesirable, however, it does not translate into personnel development decisions and written-down policies. In meetings, colleagues feel like they should not point fingers. Indeed, what seems collegial at first glance is damaging to the institution in the end. In effect, some perpetrators of such poor academic practices retain the highest positions within academic bodies. Only very few departments opt to lecture students annually on academic ethics. Many times Czech colleagues opt for the way of least resistance and shy away from voicing their opinions in fear of antagonising colleagues.

Academic leaders who have no factual power or who feel that they owe allegiance not to an institutional mission-statement but to groups like their departmental colleagues or a capricious academic senate will ultimately do nothing but preside over the status quo. This is not even doing the bitterly ironic Czech saying “Evolution, not Revolution” any justice.

One of the recommendations by Dr Stuart Clark, senior fellow at Jesus College, University of Cambridge is that in order to stimulate an institution or to kick-start world-competitive research, “once every 10-15 years you have to make a high-profile hire” that will set the tone for the next decade. There are many great, leading Czech scientists living abroad in the USA, UK and Germany – give them an incentive to come back! A government needs to focus money to achieve that, but it is not an impossible feat. It is done by the German Scholars Organization e.V., by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Research Foundation (DFG), but the political will to do so has to come first.

So where does that leave the state of academia in the Czech Republic? Reformists in the Czech Republic are asking for help and legitimacy from the Ministry of education youth and sports (MŠMT ČR). The ministry needs to have one clear agenda for higher education and research in terms of international academic competition and achievement. One way would be by empowering Czech universities in a “Czech Association of Institutions of Higher Education” whose declared statutes should be: (1) freedom and indivisibility of research and teaching, and (2) care for young academics. Such an institution should act as political, economic and legal lobby for institutions of higher education in front of policy-makers and society. They should also provide information services and seminars to guide young academics; especially if their home institutions lack proper mentoring and good academic practices. Such institutions exist in Germany in form of the “Deutscher Hochschulverband” and in the UK as the “Royal Society” and their local branches.

Until the date that such vital institutions and reforms are implemented, I fear many more international and Czech scientists will leave, and it will get worse before it gets better. [Link]

Dr. Michael J. Bojdys

Prague, 02/06/17

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3 thoughts on “Something is rotten in the academia of the Czech Republic.

  1. I always appreciate when people put energy into constructive criticism of the Czech academic system. Thanks.
    I have a very similar experience of an old men’s club around Professor Kratochvil, the current dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University. Some comments about what I believe to be a typical career path there is to be found on my webpage. It is quite amusing to observe this dichotomy: when Kratochvil talks on public it’s all internationalization, excellence, and I do not know what. And then you look how are academic staff actually hired (and what academic staff are actually hired)… And almost nobody says a word…

    Like

  2. The change in the Czech Academy of Science or Ministry of Education is necessary, although I worry the current state leaders will orient the basic research towards the applied stuff. I understand why are you leaving, but I would appreciate you will take the courage in the future, come back and fight for the change of the system since nobody from the old structures does that… Anyway, all the best in the new University.

    Like

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