Roman Simon Hilscher: The faculty can handle the energy crisis but measures must also be taken elsewhere

The budgetary impacts of the present energy/economic crises are currently being addressed not only at the level of governments, ministries or managers of large organisations, such as universities, but also within individual faculties. The topic is presently being handled by the Vice-Dean for Economics, Roman Simon Hilscher, who fully believes that the faculty can handle the current crisis. 

24 Oct 2022

Photo: Irina Matusevich

Energy prices are certainly an important item in the budget of a faculty our size, particularly as regards its research portfolio. Is it possible to take measures at the faculty level?

The solution to the whole problem must come from outside, from the level of governments of the European Union states. The faculty management have already taken specific steps to help the various institutes, including the decision to use part of the operational funds to reimburse energy-related costs. It should be mentioned that two-thirds of the energy costs are paid by the faculty and just one third by the institutes themselves.

Have there been any investments at the faculty level that should lead to savings?

Various investment possibilities are now being considered, including the instalment of solar panels, for example. This agenda comes under the responsibility of the faculty bursar; however, the question of savings in energy costs has been the topic of almost every Dean’s Board meeting since the summer.

What specifically falls under your agenda?

My main task is to prepare the faculty budget. More precisely, I manage that part of the funds that the faculty, as a part of the university, receives from the Ministry of Education under the framework of the ‘long-term conceptual development of research organisations’ (DKRVO), which covers money for science and contributions to educational activities. This also covers the preparation of budgetary rules and discussions on what the parameters of these rules should look like in relation to the university budget, or rules for the distribution of money at the national level.

But not all faculties have a vice-dean for economics; why does our faculty need such a post?

We are a large faculty. Some of our institutions are larger than those elsewhere. If we compare the size of our faculty with those of other universities in the Czech Republic, we would be the sixth largest college in the imaginary ranking, far ahead of several other universities. In addition, the Faculty decided to introduce a performance budget many years ago aimed at helping the various institutions manage what they earnt through their own activities, and this has been compiled ever since. Our budget is somewhat reminiscent of the university’s budget.

What is the faculty’s performance budget based on?

The budget is designed to incentivise performance while maintaining a reasonable level of fixation that ensures that the institution’s income does not fall below a certain level, thereby guaranteeing a level of stability. Performance is measured by qualitative parameters directed toward excellence in science and teaching.

What performance parameters are used in science and teaching?

In teaching, for example, it is about supporting the international mobility of students or about success in the timely completion of their studies. Quality of science is also a significant parameter, measured by the share of DKRVO. In science itself, publications in high-quality professional journals receive significant subsidies and the benefits of external non-investment money for science and research is assessed. We assume that when someone has a good publication, they also have a better chance of getting grants and generating more external money for science and the development of their workplace. If the parameters are set reasonably, and the whole system is relatively simple to check the input data and it is not burdened with significant errors that would lead to subsequent questioning, it can work.

This is not your first time in the position of vice dean for economics is it? You held the same position between 2014 and 2017, after which you were made vice-dean for information systems and economics (2018-2021). Have things changed since then?

Based on the amount of time I devote to budget preparation, I must admit that it has become much more challenging in recent years. The external environment has changed, as have the methods of funding at state level, and more and more emphasis is placed on the quality of outputs, both in science and teaching, with increased effort to make quality prevail over quantity. The content of the agenda is the same, but it is increasingly complicated and demanding to fulfil it.

Why is it getting more complicated?

I would compare it to the basic principle of thermodynamics, entropy increases. Systems are compounded, they do not remain constant but evolve, and does society. I think it is inevitable. The faculty manages an amount of approximately 300 million crowns for science, and less than 500 million crowns for teaching, so the non-investment budget is approximately 800 million crowns. With such high amounts, great attention must be paid to budget preparation.

Does your own expertise in mathematics help you compile budgetary rules?

Several times during the preparation of the budget, I have encountered a problem that we definitely could not afford to solve through the trial and error method. In the end, I managed to solve the problem mathematically by writing down the given problem in the form of relationships (equations), which I subsequently implemented into the budget. Analytical thinking, the ability to break down a problem into components and describe the dependencies, has certainly helped me find solutions. I use this procedure both in the processing of our faculty budget and in situations where I have been asked, for example, to consult on the national budget.

What exactly do you do in your research?

My scientific expertise is in mathematical analysis, by which I mean differential equations and their qualitative properties. Part of my research also concerns the theory of optimal control and the theory of difference equations. This are somewhat analogous to differential equations, but the independent variable (let’s call it the time) is discrete. I also study processes with the so-called hybrid time, which are time scales. Many optimal solutions that can be seen in the nature can be described by differential equations. This shows that our world is in proper hands.

Can you give an example?

As an example, a freely-hanging power line wire will always have the same shape; this is not random as this shape minimises energy. The shape is known as a hyperbolic cosine, which can be mathematically derived through a differential equation. If this same curve is turned up side down, then we get a self-supporting (more precisely self-locking) curve that can be used for the construction of self-supporting bridges or window arches. Also, when we travel around the world by plane, we move along special routes (geodetics) taking the minimum distance between the start and the end destination on a sphere, thus minimising the time spent traveling (ideally).

How did you get into mathematics?

At the secondary school it was already my favourite subject, maybe because I never had problems with it, I never had to really learn mathematics, not even for my graduation. I just immediately understood what I heard in the lessons. It was the subject I enjoyed the most. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, figuring things out, understanding why they work the way they do, and mathematics is a great field for that. I had the opportunity to choose between studying mathematics in Brno and Prague and, as Prague seemed too big to me at the time, I chose Brno.

Prague may have seemed big, but in 2000–2003 you worked at Michigan State University in the US. What did this experience mean to you?

I consider it as one of my best experiences. While there, I came to understand how important it is to show our students that the things we teach them are useful. Now, I always try to give practical examples for all mathematical terms and dependencies, what they are good for.

The position of dean is time consuming, will you have time for teaching and your own research?

I have been dealing with science throughout my time as a vice-dean. During this period, we have dealt with several GAČR grant projects, where I think we have had great results. This summer, after year’s delay due to COVID, colleagues from our team at the institute and from BUT organised the Equadiff 15 global conference on differential equations, which was very successful. I consider it important to be in contact with foreign colleagues in the field. Teaching is a matter of the heart. Discussions with students move one forward. I enjoy it very much and I also appreciate feedback from the students.

How do you relax and when do you find time for it?

I see it like having children. If you have one child it takes 100 % of your time, if you have two children it also takes 100 % of your time, and even if you have three children it is still only 100 % of your time. I recharge through activities with my children, family and friends, where we go hiking, canoeing and cross-country skiing. I enjoy doing sports and I also like singing.

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