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Interview with Professor Dalibor Štys

“The most difficult thing was negotiating the change of procedure for appointing professors.

 Biochemistry – is a field to which professor Dalibor Štys devoted his entire life. Besides being active in the universities, he’s also interested in state administration. In June 2013, he transferred from his position as head of the department to heading the segment of education, health and sports. In an extensive interview for Leaders Magazine, the former minister in Jiří Rusnok’s government talks about the appointment of professors and support of science, as well as his personal ambitions.

Professor, Štys, when you came to head the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, you said “I consider this a service to the state… And I will try to bridge the entire issue with full responsibility." Did you expect the transitional period to take this long? 

Actually, I did expect it. I had to count on the possibility that the government would receive a vote of confidence from the Parliament of the Czech Republic which was, in the end, nearly achieved.

What were your main goals at the time and did you manage to meet them?

A functioning Chamber of Deputies would be necessary to completely fulfill the goals. Although I’m convinced that one must act in a way to fully carry out what appears to be most effective after through consulting, sometimes conditions are not suitable for that. If the law doesn’t enable improvement, it must be changed. And this affects the entire Czech educational system. Luckily, an amendment of the education act was recently issued for elementary and high 
schools, which solved a number of problems.

What remains unresolved is the status of principals, who have positions that don’t correspond to their responsibility. The amendment of the university law went through very difficult negotiations, resulting in a proposal I inherited someplace half-way there. This is particularly true of accreditations where, aside from the logical research and professional fields, there still remain generally academic fields.

In the current university law, the position of professors remains unresolved and rather ornamental. They don’t even have a special position in the decision-making regarding running the university, nor in the accreditation of study programs. I don’t think I could have set any higher goals, beyond holding a qualified discussion about these critical issues.

And what specifically went well?

We managed to increase the budget of the Ministry of Education in the chapters of regional education, as well as research and development and stabilize it in chapters of university education and sport and youth. Of thing I didn’t need changes in law for, I would point out particularly as being those international activities in research and development. Already by August, I was invited by the President of the Max Planck Society to a panel discussion about the development of science in the countries that recently joined the EU. This opened the doors to me to all, even the informal, meetings and negotiations. This was also the reason that, in collaboration with permanent representation of the Czech Republic in Brussels, we managed to negotiate appropriate conditions for the participation of Czech researchers in the Horizon 2020 program.

Within the commencement of the joint year of research of the European Union and the Russian Federation, I visited a joint institute of nuclear research in Dubno, near Moscow, where the Czech Republic has a significant and defining representation. The NICA experiment in Dubno was made a priority for the collaboration of the EU and the Russian Federation. The Czech Republic invested significantly in research infrastructure, the most in the entire European Union. We need to utilize this chance as best we can. At the Ministry, we then prepared both of the follow-up programs: The National Sustainability Program I – for Smaller Infrastructures, and the National Sustainability Program II – for the European Centers of Excellence.

I also attempted to expand international communication in the university area. Together with the new rectors of the Charles University and ČVUT, I visited Vienna. Through another visit, I supported the development of Czech language studies in Glasgow. Everywhere I went, I strived for specific agreements about the preparation of projects for doubled study programs, called ‘dual degrees,’ particularly at the level of Ph.D. This always initiated the most interest, as a result of the fact that these days scientific performance is critical for the evaluation of universities and that, primarily, the students of doctorate studies contribute to that.

Which decision as the head of the Department was the most difficult for your?

The most difficult was negotiating the change of procedure for appointing professors. Representatives of the universities would have liked me to fight on behalf of the current status, but I strongly disagree with it. In the matter of professors and associate professors, the current university law dates back to 1950-1956, created by Ministers Nejedlý, Štoll and Kahuda. Actually, political overview aside, the current law is even harsher to professors than the one valid before November, 1989.

The pre-war condition was such that the professor was appointed by the President, the appointment sent to him or her via official mail. But also with it came a permanent position at a specific university until the age of 70. The only way to lose that position was a disciplinary proceeding. The board of professors decided over school management and it was unthinkable that someone who was not a professor would become the rector.

In the current law, the President still appoints a professor personally, but the professor is not an employee of the university and can change from one university to another. The university is managed by the Academic Senate, which is voted for by both employees and students, and it is possible that there may be no professor in it at all. A person who is not even an associate professor, much less a professor, can become a rector or a dean. At the same time, the state does not establish to which field professors may be appointed. It is common in our country to appoint professors in fields that have no logic in the world-wide structure of research.

By this I don’t want say that similarly named professorial positions don’t exist in institutions of tertiary education in the world, for example as in various polytechnic schools. But nobody would dare to ask the highest representative of the state to name such professors.  Practically nowhere in the world does the head of state appoint professors anymore. They are selected by the university, usually through an international invitation for applications.

On the other hand, there is always some form of a permanent employment relationship tied to the appointment of a professor for a certain period of time – typically up to 65 years of age that can only be cancelled through a disciplinary proceeding. This gives professors the true freedom of scientific opinion. 

That’s a rather complex view...

To simplify it, we might say we removed only the least important of the pre-war conditions, decorated it with a ceremony in robes, but let go of all the factually meaningful elements, such as international quality, academic freedom and the role of professors in the management of the universities. Unfortunately, this problem was considered a dispute between the President and the rectors of universities and so leading a meaningful discussion in that atmosphere was very difficult.

Yet the quality of teachers and their decisions regarding the curriculum and study requirements is an absolutely essential issue for universities. Everything else, aside from financing, is secondary. But I think that a number of rectors see the fact that the political independence of the university decreased, rather than strengthened, by the imposition of intervention by the state. Perhaps I was useful with my resistance to the automatic sending of applications for appointment of professors, although some might think I’m an idiot.

And what about the President’s complaints over the university law?

To a large degree, one must agree with them: the rector should be a professor, a professorship should not be transferrable and the problem indeed exists of personal likes and dislikes. The pre-war regulation solved all this successfully. The President was even able to appoint a professor the board of professors approved with as little as a 2/5 minority, perhaps only because they didn’t like him. We could say that all we had to do is go back to this arrangement.

In the end, as is known, the four highest constitutional agents – the President, the President of the Senate, the President of the Chamber of Deputies and the Prime Minister – agreed and proposed to agree with Senator Chládek’s proposal, according to whom professorial titles should be issued by the President of the Senate. Our ministry prepared a proposal and included in it the main factual requirement of the academic community, which was predictably the result of the professorship proceedings. We therefore proposed an administrative period of 30 days. This will mean that the appointment of professors will take place not once or twice a year, but every month. I see this as the first step to making the whole discussion more practical and enabling appointed professors to truly be the leading representatives of their fields, as it was in the First Republic.

When it comes to education, the main subject in the Czech Republic is state final high-school exams. But what do you personally consider the greatest challenge of Czech education?

The solution for many problems lies in the hands of the school founders, mayors and regional governors. They complain that, on one hand, the small municipalities must close their schools and, on the other, the larger regional schools can’t handle the influx of students and often suffer for it. In my view, the solution is for the small municipalities and the regional areas to create one core school with branches in individual municipalities. Such solution is far better than to administratively merge municipalities, which is what most countries do, because by administrative merging, historic municipalities lose their voice and identity. Voluntary unions led by an interest in quality of education are the best solutions.

On the other hand, I don’t see final high-school exams as such a huge problem. The problem of requirements in content resides in the many qualification prerequisites. For example, in order for someone to open a business as a beauty parlor, she must have a high-school final exam. With this, the exams became something entirely different than people perceive it – let’s say that in a certain sense it is actually denigrated. By the way, this is true with all titles, including the professorial one.

The best solution would be to use self-developing computer tests where, after reaching a certain level, the tested student would elevate to a higher level – a bit like in a computer game. I don’t think in this day and age it’s a technical problem. But we still have a weak high-school final exam, as required by qualification regulations that are not established by the Ministry of Education.

But in the school part, the high schools can also introduce their own final exam for any subject. A number of high schools had their own final exams for physics or mathematics. A joint project is being prepared for the school portion of the final exams that the Ministry of Education will test in more than 40 high schools. A demanding final exam is possible, but in the current situation it’s the responsibility of the school and the choice of the students themselves.  

A complicated agenda for the University of Economics. Our magazine will be printed at the end of January or beginning of February. That is the period when there is a threat that the university will be without management. What is it like to be handed such a critical issue with a “limited mandate,” as politicians often call it?

There were already several universities in this country in such situations. I was personally active at the University of South Bohemia where, after the death of Rector Hrabánková, the university was directed by a Vice-rector. The problem with the University of Economics is that the appointment of all Vice-rectors ends with the planned term of the existing Rector. We recommended that the University of Economics extend the appointment of the Vice-rector, who will manage the school.

In this regard, I’d like to point out one aspect of university life – the strong influence of internal politics. The Senate establishes the election of Deans and the Rector and the structure of study programs as well as study regulations. But in some universities, students compose up to 50% of the Academic Senate. To the contrary, during the election the professors, who from the layman point of view are the guarantors of the quality of universities, have the value of “one of the academic workers,” who are elected by the students as well. I think that if the Senate had to include a mandatory curia of professors, composing 1/3 of the Senate, the elections would be much more conservative and truly renowned people would get into the management.

In your opinion, what is Czech education’s level of excellence?

According to the PISA tests, we are slightly above average. The tests have only a limited informative value, because 24 long years ago we overlooked language education, particularly the worldwide lingua franca – English. Thus we can barely compare on a day-to-day basis in all fields. The largest problem is in teachers of scientific subjects. Thanks to their poor linguistic knowledge, they have limited sources of tools and textbooks.  They can no longer even communicate with our top Czech scientists, because they too publish in English. Yet the scope of freely available study materials on the internet is growing rapidly. To a large degree, the teacher is turned into a mediator and guarantor of quality. Certainly our select high schools are excellent, along with several industrial high schools and certain fields in the universities. Unfortunately, for example, almost nowhere do entire faculties or entire segments of high-school level education exist.  

When it comes to your expectation and subsequent reality as the head of the sector – where do you sense the largest gap?

I worked before at the Ministry, so I already knew it. I attempted to have more collaboration between the individual departments, which I think rather worked out, even with the deputies who were most critical toward the ministry management before. And as far as I know, they said it even when I wasn’t present.

Looking back, are you glad you accepted this “service to the state?”

Certainly. It was a huge experience for me and I gained many contacts I hope to use for the further development of the Czech Republic. I want to work on specific projects. There are many opportunities, but the problem is our ability to use them. The language handicap is truly horrific. On one hand, because of it quality professionals can’t use their talents and on the other, often the knowledge of languages is enough to secure an interesting position without the necessity of professional background. I tried to point out these problems and show a spectrum of solutions. Rather immodestly, I’d dare to say I was better equipped for it than many others, professionally in terms of experience, as well as in terms of languages.

Where will your next steps be directed upon handing over the agenda to a new minister?

I will go back to the Institute of Complex Systems in Nové Hrady. That is a part of the Faculty of Fisheries and Protection of Waters and I never really left there. For example, during the time I worked as a Minister, my colleagues and I were able to get an article published in a prestigious magazine, Trends in Analytical Chemistry. And it is a very essential article that defines the uses of certain terminology related to chemistry. We also have a number of other results we need to implement, both in terms of publications and in practice. For another five years we will continue a large project within the National Sustainability Program and in recent years we had such a volume of results that we certainly won’t suffer. I think we’ll be able to keep up that performance.

Professor Štys, you are a scientist by profession. In your opinion, does science in the Czech Republic have to “fight for survival?”

The thing about my biochemistry is that I originally studied physical chemistry and it’s still my main scientific origin. Because I applied physical-chemical approaches to biochemistry, I received my PhD in this field. But my professorship is in applied physics, because from physical chemistry in biochemistry I progressed to physical chemistry in cellular biology and subsequently to the construction of a microscope and analysis of experimental data. Biology brought me to such essential questions as the organization of matter and I couldn’t imagine anything like this as a simple physical chemist.

When it comes to the fight for survival, we must admit that there is much less money being assigned to science – specifically toward research – in the Czech Republic than in many other countries. And this is true in both absolute and relative terms in relation to GDP. On the other hand, it’s still more than in most countries that recently joined the European Union. It is rather unfortunate that now development and innovation have been attached to research. Particularly in terms of innovation, the realization that should be generally financed is only now being formed. It was a political decision and all countries, at least all European Union countries, must deal with it.

We are more or less average, but in recent years, we invested more into research infrastructure than all European countries. This is a specific Czech issue, in that we keep on trying to set unified criteria that would be valid anyplace in the Czech Republic and for all at the same time. This is the result of the fact that nobody wants to move because of science. The idea that one would get a lucrative offer in Pilsen and refuse to move from Prague is unthinkable in developed countries.

For example, in Germany, it’s impossible to obtain a professorial post in the same place where one received their associate-professor degree.  As is said at the Assembly of the Academy of Sciences, “No brain is able to concurrently educate engineers for operations, teach a special course at the edge of knowledge, participate in the work of as many panels and committees as possible, perform research tailor-made for a corporation, as well as solve the basic questions on the edge of philosophy and mathematics.” Because we keep looking for evaluation systems that make all these roles average, we in fact require all these things from everyone at the same time.

In the next program period, the new research infrastructures and structural funds of the European Union will give us an excellent and possibly last chance in this regard. I know it’s difficult to admit a specific and often personal guilt for the failure to use the individual opportunities and the responsibility for the current situation. But excuses solve nothing, particularly, when many nations in situations worse than ours have already used them. There is nothing left to do except to peel off the personal benefits and friendly ties and look at what we can do for our nation. Professor Masaryk wrote something similar in 1895 in his work, Our Current Crisis.

In December, you were at a meeting in Vienna negotiating the possibility of deeper collaboration with Austria in the area of science and research. In this regard, Is Austria our ‘closest ally?’

Intellectually, Austria is close to us in many directions, which is apparent for example in their output of coalition negotiations over the composition of their local government. In any case, Austria significantly invested in research in recent years. They restructured their Academy of Sciences and established new research centers with financial co-investment with their nine federal states.

Austria also strategically mines the intellectual capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire countries and from Germany as well. This is enabled by the fact that there are no school fees in Austrian universities, so students gravitate there. We also have such opportunities to mine the intellectual potential of Russian-speaking countries but also, for example, from Vietnam. Some universities already attempt this, but it’s not a general strategy and in terms of alliances, the first step should be establishing study programs with double diplomas. I’m hoping that this would bring up generations of students who will be natural ‘door openers’ between the two countries that mutually depend upon each other.

Should private entities be more interested in funding research and development? And how can they get involved?

Our government made a significant positive step toward that, enabling companies to take expenses for order-based research and technical education off their taxes. Most countries look for ways to connect company research with the academic and only a few of them succeed. It appears to be most effective to connect older researchers from industries who no longer can advance their careers in the corporate hierarchy, into a system of transfer of knowledge from research and development into practice. We haven’t had many such people in our country and whose who were here often used opportunities to go abroad right after 1989 and stayed there. We are now finally getting to a stage when companies in the Czech Republic fund their research centers for longer periods of time and their senior researchers look for further opportunities. Perhaps we’ll be able to manage it.

What are the most important steps necessary to support science?

It would be very significant to change the system of research management. By this I don’t mean mostly the state system of distributing funds for research, but the internal function of research organizations, particularly evaluation. In a way, the present times are bad for this. Worldwide, science is mostly evaluated by the number of publications and citations. But this necessarily leads to the fact that work is being fragmented, repetitive and doesn’t go deep. For example, this year’s Nobel Prize laureate, Peter Higgs, mentioned that he nearly ended his university work in 1980 – the University of Edinburgh wanted to let him go. But he was nominated for the Nobel Prize and management thought that he might even get it one day. And that shows up in the evaluations, international charts, etc.

Through the excessive application of one mechanical international evaluation, we risk that we will lose the most detail-oriented and quality individuals. In my opinion, the solution would be to understand the social role of research, development and university education and acknowledge our limited human capacity in fulfilling them.

Just glancing over the border, we see three types of schools: universities, technical universities and Polytechnics / Fachhochschule. There are also several types of research institutions: The Max Planck Society Institute, where their goal is top-level basic research, the Helmholtz Society institute, that are primarily large research infrastructures and the Frauenhofer Society that focuses on research for companies and applications, as well as the Leibnitz Society that unites some traditional institutes, museums and libraries. Only a few countries have their research organized as systematically as Germany. Most countries similar to ours solve their research structure mostly in the form of long-term institutional projects awarded to universities, university alliances, research institutes, etc. But the structure of goals is similar everywhere. And that should be the goal of our system of funding, as well as evaluating science.

For a number of years you worked in Sweden. To what degree did this influence your view of science, the public support of science and the state’s general approach to science?

Between 1992 and 1995, science in Sweden was a very quiet job that naturally had to be performed properly. And that was the case, even though Sweden went through a fall in their currency at the time and began limiting research funding. It was at a time when the mechanical evaluation of science was in its early stages and also the golden age of transferring scientific knowledge into practice. Several of my colleagues ended up in companies, mostly biotechnological, that sprouted in multitudes in the so-called Medicon Valley around the straits between Denmark and Sweden.

I tried to bring some of that ethos to the Czech Republic, but the time wasn’t right. And it’s probably still not right yet, particularly because the worldwide distrust of investors toward such projects is increasing. The methods from back then also don’t work because the structure of society changed as well as people’s character. If I were to point out one key problem, it would be that the original founders of hi-tech companies were modest scientists who were only interested in their thing. But they got rich and their kids went to prestigious schools and thus have entirely different ideas about how they should be remunerated and how stable their income should be.

But invariably, hi-tech companies go through huge financial crises and everyone must tighten their belts. And suddenly a decently paid job in the state administration can appear to be the right solution. But perhaps this is a chance for the Czech Republic, because it is economically close to the situation of Sweden in the 80s and 90s. But we lack the Swedish ever-present knowledge of English and I’m afraid this significantly hinders us.

Let’s look back on your own years in school. I assume you excelled in natural sciences. But how did you do in sports?

I was quite good in sports. I was even at the European championship in the Olympic category of Flying Dutchman boats and in the World Championship in the neo-Olympic Tempest boat category. To be honest, I didn’t devote my full attention to either studies or sports. I was quite good in both, but I could have been much better in each if I were more focused. It had its pros and cons. The benefit is that you always have plan B – if science wouldn’t have worked out, I was ready to go do a regular job that would give me time for sports. On the other hand, I never found myself in a situation that I would depend on a sport so much that I couldn’t live without it.  

You are the father of two sons. Do they have ‘your genes’ or do they focus on other fields?

Every July, we organize international summer schools for high-school and university students. My whole family has been involved in the organization of it since 2005. So it was mandatory that my sons attend. Sometimes they liked it, sometimes not, depending on their age. The older one studies cybernetics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague. It seems that studying for practice cured him of his disdain of science. He’s planning another phase of study abroad, all the way to a doctorate. My younger son is in the third year of an eight-year grammar school. He’s doing well. We’ll see what he grows up to be.

Source: Leaders Magazine - Author: Jaroslav Kramer
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