We don't know what else awaits us. That’s why it’s important to support quality basic research and be prepared
prof. RNDr. Jaroslav Koča, DrSc. (1955–2021)
department head of National Centre for Biomolecular Research
National Centre for Biomolecular Research, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
CEITEC Masaryk University
The career of the structural biologist Jaroslav Koča has been associated with the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University for more than four decades. In 1995, he obtained the title of Professor of Organic Chemistry while at the faculty. Not only is he the long-term Director of the National Centre for Biomolecular Research (which he initiated) and current Scientific Director of CEITEC, he has also worked at a number of foreign institutions in Norway, France and the USA, some of them for a long time.
He has obtained and led several large domestic and foreign scientific projects, with funding ranging from tens to hundreds of millions of crowns. The rich experience he gained at Masaryk University will now help him in his new position as Chairman of the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic. In his new position, he would like to motivate Czech scientists to strive for excellence and facilitate foreign cooperation.
Photo: Radek Miča, Universitas
What is the role of the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic (GACR) in Czech science, and what is the role of its Chairman?
GACR is absolutely crucial for basic research as it distributes financial support amounting to 4.4 billion crowns. Without this money, basic research would not be possible today, and it would be difficult to find it elsewhere. In a significant way, it contributes to the formation of Czech science as a whole, and this is a systemic thing. Being the head of this Grant Agency, therefore, is a great honour, but also a great responsibility.
Isn't it too big a task for individuals to determine the future direction of Czech science?
An individual cannot do that. The chairman does not make the decisions himself, but he can set directions and motivate; the fundamental decisions are up to the Presidium. Choosing quality scientific projects is a difficult thing. Science cannot be measured with a stopwatch or a ruler. Evaluation of scientific projects is a complicated and multi-layered process and we have a sophisticated evaluation mechanism for this, which consists of about forty evaluation panels in which four hundred experts work to assess whether a project is of high quality and competitive.
In the past, you were a member of the GACR Presidium. Should we expect a ‘revolution’ now you have been elected President?
Definitely not. The Presidium is a small five-member body. We understand each other well, though we do argue sometimes; it would be strange if we didn’t. I don’t think there will be any big changes, but that doesn’t mean the outside world won’t see anything happening. It will not be a revolution, but a continuity. In the past, a great deal of work has gone into supporting international projects and we want to continue doing so, and perhaps even to significantly expand such foreign cooperation efforts.
For example, we want to gradually introduce a system where, under the same formal rules and mechanisms, a Czech scientist could submit a project with any foreign laboratory or workplace in Europe. At present, cooperation with a number of countries is possible, but only on the basis of bilateral agreements. We want to reach a point where, instead of fifteen bilateral agreements we have one mechanism with uniform rules. This will be a major breakthrough for the development of international cooperation as it will make it easier to submit projects with the highest quality workplaces abroad, which in turn will also improve our chances of publishing in the highest quality journals.
What else will the agency support under your leadership?
In addition to standard projects, we will continue to support excellence. We have two types of grant call for this, one for young scientists and one for more mature researchers, who can receive five-years project funding of up to 50 million crowns under the EXPRO program, which means they don’t have to write projects every two years. In addition, this should increase the participation of Czech scientists in larger projects, especially in European projects such as the ERC, where Czech scientists have not yet been very successful. The goal is to use this money to get more ERC projects and to help Czech science.
So, what’s the challenge for those young scientists?
At present, we have the JUNIOR STAR grant. This is intended to help young scientists, whose research is of sufficient quality, to become scientifically independent and, for example, to set up their own team. The aim of these grants is also to revive Czech science, after all, it is often the young scientists who come up with new and fresh ideas. Thanks to these grants, they will have the chance to devote themselves fully to such ideas. The support is relatively generous, providing the successful applicant with up to 25 million crowns for five years. But for a young scientist to succeed in this challenge, they must have a research history. The competition is really high.
But what about a young scientist at year zero? Does he or she not stand a chance?
That would be wrong, of course. One of our key ideas is to be able to fund a scientist throughout his or her career. This year, we will announce a grant competition for post-doctoral projects. This will be targeted at those who have completed their doctoral studies and who still want to continue in science but are not yet sufficiently experienced at leading their own team. Successful applicants for a three-year project in this competition will receive money to spend on the first two years as a post-doctoral fellow at any university in the world. For the third year, they have to undertake research at a Czech research institute in order to pass on the experience they have acquired abroad.
The second branch of the program is designed to attract talented young people from abroad for post-doctoral studies in the Czech Republic, allowing them to share ideas and experience in Czech research institutes. This is extremely important in science. Everyone knows that when genes are mixed it can prove successful, and this is doubly true in science. There is a need to simply “mix” ideas and that is what this program aims to do.
What should young scientists do to make their project a success?
Science cannot be done without ideas. It is not possible without original ideas, but also without the understanding that they will have to do a lot of work, and it’s good to realise this at the very beginning. People who work in science usually devote an enormous amount of time to their work, often working on weekends and holidays. In the end, they are motivated by the feeling that they see and know things no one else knows, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
What do you think is holding back Czech scientists?
Czech science is highly competitive in many fields. In my view, however, it is most hampered by bureaucracy. This is true almost everywhere, even abroad, but at different levels. The only people who can successfully beat bureaucracy are those that can work without a huge pile of paperwork. At the Grant Agency, for example, we have managed to ensure that, at the end of each year, the drawing of funds does not have to be settled in pennies and that the balance can be carried over to the following year. It is important that the funds are used up during the project.
You came to be Chairman of GACR after having been Director of the CEITEC research centre. What management experience did you gain at CEITEC that has helped you in your new position?
Actually, I think almost all of it. In building CEITEC we had three main goals: to create a centre for excellent science, to offer a highly competitive research infrastructure and to cultivate a culture that would be close to that of the top international scientific institutions abroad. With the exception of investments in building research infrastructures, which is not the role of the GACR, everything else, including competitiveness, international environment and culture, is also a goal for the agency. So while the territory is a bit wider, the key points are very similar.
Do you think you can transfer what you learnt at CEITEC to the whole Czech Republic? What was your biggest success there?
I consider the research infrastructures to be the biggest success at CEITEC. When we prepared them, it was not a very well-known model in our country. Over the course of ten years, it has become extremely important, not only in the Czech Republic but also over the world. And we kept up with this. It feels good when the Swiss agency preparing the documents and scheme for the European Union on the question of funding research infrastructures for the next programming period turns to you for an interview, as a person representing an institution that has managed it very well.
You talked about the international environment and culture…
I think that at CEITEC we have managed to create a truly international environment with attributes that are not yet common in the Czech Republic. All administrative mechanisms are conducted in English from the very beginning. Many people in leading positions at CEITEC actually did not know Czech and did not speak it, therefore, we had to convince the administration department to work in English. This was not, and is not, common in the Czech Republic. However, it’s very important for the culture of the institution and it could be an important factor in deciding whether you will get another quality scientist or not.
Is this more important for foreign researchers than the salary?
Salary is important for them, of course, they must live on something, but if we provide them with a reasonable salary, which does not necessarily have to be an astronomical amount, they will no longer be interested in the salary but in the conditions we offer for work. What are the relationships here, what is the culture here, what are our infrastructures? They need to find an environment where they have room for creativity.
With hindsight, what didn’t work so well at CEITEC?
We wanted to create a centre of scientific excellence that bridged the life sciences and materials sciences. However, some things did not go as planned. We had a number of successful interdisciplinary projects based on materials science with outputs to biology, but there have been fewer projects based on medicine and these lacked an element of materials research.
Why did this happen?
It wasn't easy. The original intention was to build a new campus in Brno where everything would be together. However, it could be built either near the Brno-Bohunice campus of Masaryk University or the Pod Palackého vrchem campus of the Technical University, or at another new green field site. Eventually, part was built on the Bohunice University Campus and part at Pod Palackého vrchem. At that time, it was probably the only solution, but the distance between the two workplaces has handicapped us a bit. Even so, thanks to the existence of the consortium, it was possible to set common rules in a number of areas and thus ensure quality.
What will be the main task for Pavel Tomančák, your successor as Director of CEITEC?
To take care of the integrity of the consortium and grow and develop the CEITEC brand. The brand opened many doors for me, in fact all I wanted. It is a brand that is already known around the world and internationally known and recognised. Masaryk University can be proud of it, as can the other participating universities and institutions.
And what about the research infrastructure? Will there be a lack of money to restore it?
A special chapter was devoted to research infrastructure in a governmental decision of 2015, which set aside up to 10 percent of the state budget for science and research. This represents approximately 1.8 billion crowns of operating funds per year. The amount of investment that comes from structural funds is about the same. This should be included in the next programming period of the JAK operational program. Today, in many fields, infrastructure quality and its maintenance determines whether the given field will be competitive.
We have talked a lot here about the tasks of the Director of the Science Centre. Can science be controlled while at the same time respecting freedom of research?
There are a few foolish people, mostly administrators, who think that science can be controlled. But science, of course, cannot be controlled in principle. How can you manage something when you don’t know how it will turn out? From the position of a Director, you can encourage science and create the right conditions for it. This is the role of science managers, to create the right conditions (including financial) for scientists, so that they are able to undertake research without being overly influenced by managers; that would be wrong.
Do you still have time for science?
Almost never, but then again I have clever young people around me and I can help them with advice or get involved in something with a small amount of work and then take care of the outputs. That is my connection to science now. Then again, a person who is dealing with the distribution of money for science should have some connection with actual science. My advantage is that I have gone through a number of fields during my scientific career.
Where did your scientific career start?
I started as an organic chemist, dealing with computer designs for organic syntheses. A trip to Scandinavia for a post-doctoral internship led me to study biologically interesting molecules. Back then, I studied how their shape of small molecules changed over time.
You have also been to the United States ...
Yes, I gradually moved from small molecules to biomacromolecules, especially proteins and nucleic acids. In the USA, I had the opportunity to use the latest instruments, which allowed me to study these large systems in time and space, and especially to perform computer simulations. Over time, the amount of information on the structure of macromolecules grew and a new field called structural bioinformatics began to form.
A combination of biology and informatics?
It turned out that it is no longer a just a case of measuring what we are interested in but also finding new information in the large amounts of data that modern instruments make available. Bioinformatics as a field is providing new information. The information is in the data, but we can’t always see it.
Your work has been an example of breaking down boundaries between disciplines. You founded the National Centre for Biomolecular Research (NCBR) at Masaryk University in 2001. For what reason?
We wanted to create a department of the Faculty of Science that would focus on research and post-graduate studies. It was a great inspiration for the subsequent establishment and building of CEITEC. Today, the NCBR cooperates very successfully and closely with CEITEC, mainly in the area of post-graduate education. Currently, the NCBR provides education for about 160 Doctoral students and this would not be possible without the cooperation of CEITEC. In my opinion, that’s how it should work for the whole university.
What is your relationship to Masaryk University? What did you gain from being there?
I have spent many years at this university, which must mean that I’m satisfied here. But I have also been abroad for many years, and if young people are going to read this interview I would tell them “be sure to try something elsewhere, outside the university. Only when you return will . Hopefully, I succeeded in cultivating my alma mater with the experience I brought back from abroad.
How would you describe the culture at Masaryk University, both as regards your experiences from abroad and the input you gained from other Czech schools thanks to CEITEC?
Masaryk University is multicultural and multidisciplinary. Thanks to CEITEC, I have had to talk to doctors and naturalists, but also technicians, farmers and veterinarians, and I was happy to do so. It was a great school. Interdisciplinarity has always been, and still is, a great aim; however, it can also bring problems. However, the university has excellent preconditions to get there, and this will improve even further after the arrival of the Faculty of Pharmacy.
So what would MU need in the future?
I would like the university to have as many departments as possible, places that will be attractive to foreign lecturers or scientists and to those returning from abroad. The institution should be dynamic and open, because that is the only way to move up the international rankings. Today, the fields of science and education are characterised by a struggle for brains. The fight is getting harder and harder because more and more players are entering it. It is our placement in the ranking that is one of main parameters that will improve our position in the battle for brains.
And the challenges for Czech science under the influence of current events? How do you see this?
The world will never be the same. Events such as 9/11 changed the world, and the current pandemic will change it too. The world will continue to change all the time. We don’t know what the next crisis will be; it could be another pandemic, or an ecological or biological disaster ... and because we don't know, the only sensible thing we can do is to be well prepared as possible, and that is where basic research can help. So let’s do good basic research. Let’s not do poor quality basic research because that doesn’t really deserve to be funded. If we do, someone else will do it better and faster.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche