Eva Zažímalová


“Creativity and the Ability to Improvise Represent the Main Assets of Czech Science”


Eva Zažímalová, President, Academy of Sciences

Meeting Mrs. Zažímalová took place at the representative building of the Academy of Sciences at Národní třída. Noble surroundings were suitable for the noble appearance of the Czech top scientist. Mrs. Zažímalová, extremely open and welcoming, showed the exact mode of scientific thinking. I understood to what extent the world of science is unique and different, as well as precise, defined and at the same time constantly challenging and proving itself. I left fascinated not only by accurate statements, but also very exact answers and capability to address issues not only in a complex manner, but also context. We discussed current situation in the science as well as its past; we also explored various forms of diversity in science and we touched upon the intersection between science and business.

Mrs. Zažímalová, we are meeting in the beautiful historical premises of the Academy of Sciences. How is the science doing in the current, modern times, in 2017?

Science represents a continuous process; any major leap happens only due to major discoveries. From this perspective, we cannot say that 2017 will represent any decisive milestone. There are many new discoveries happening and scientists from the Czech Republic are involved as well. As some of the latest discoveries I can mention the development of a potential treatment for the aggressive form of breast cancer at the Biotechnological Institute or the article from colleagues at the Institute of Physics published in the Science Magazine about the diffraction of electrons on nanocrystalline materials. The list could be much longer, however, these two issues have captured my attention, but they are not a representative selection by any means.

When we compare the Czech science to the international one, how are we doing? Are there reasons to be proud and in fact, are we proud enough?

We could spend plenty of time debating this issue and we could mention some sociological as well as historical aspects. I believe that when it comes to the amount of financing available for scientists, in case of being funded only from Czech, not international resources, we have many reasons to be proud. In many disciplines, particularly those experimental ones, our scientists are much more efficient than their colleagues in the West with regards to the money invested. The lack of financing can truly represent a breakthrough limit in experimental disciplines. I have already mentioned in previous interviews that creativity and capability to improvise are our main assets but unless you have basic financing for the necessary methodical background, one cannot achieve results only due to being more creative or smarter. The money is at the forefront, which is also true for science. The more we invest in science, the more the science will bring. But it is not true all the time and in the absolute amount. However, a reasonable evaluation of science that at first it assesses the quality of science and only then correlates quality with the funding, is always very crucial. I understand that each institution which is paid by public finances is obliged to make an overall quality evaluation of own activities and efficiency.

Should we leave money aside, what else would you wish for the Czech science?

The most free environment possible…I do not want to say that currently we do not have the free environment. We have been experiencing a great degree of freedom in research during last years and decades. However, taking into consideration when I was born, I still remember how manipulated abused science was. In the current times and in disciplines that I am able to judge, this is not happening. The free environment is essential. If you want to have a great and rich harvest, then you must plant the seeds the same way. When I mention planting, I mean the basic, curiosity driven research. And such type of research cannot be planned precisely in advance. The extent and direction of further research and experiments should be guided by the very experts in the eld who know the methods and model experimental materials or the sources as it is the case of social sciences and humanities. I consider any planning of basic research nonsense. Even during the totalitarian regime, many scientists were capable of writing projects or at that time “basic research plans”, so they could research whatever they wanted. This is true about disciplines where politics did not interfere. This is not true about history, sociology, law and so on. As far as natural sciences are concerned, the politics interfered in genetics, the crusade against mendelism- morganism had influenced the discipline that is today called molecular biology and genetics. The freedom of research is for the basic, curiosity driven research the most sacred quality.

So how do you perceive the current discussion that recommends to support natural and technical sciences to the detriment of humanities?

I maintain that there is only one science. Someone does it better, someone is worse. If we take the perspective of disciplines and their division, it is not possible to claim what remains science and what does not. Someone needs only a computer and the most part of invested money goes to salaries, someone else needs expensive experimental devices, infrastructure, needs to plant or to cultivate experimental material which is then reflected in the investment part. But I would never dare claim that one discipline is better or worse when compared to one another. That is generally valid. As I have already mentioned, humanities and social sciences were very much negatively effected by the former regime and it takes time to build a discipline. Traditionally, we have excelled in physics and chemistry and we belong to the top ones in the world but those were disciplines that were not affected by the former regime. They have managed to build both background and establish tradition. In many humanities and social discipline, there was a much larger presence of “social sciences” and so it can be said that these disciplines are still in the process of recovering. It would not be fair to claim that these disciplines are worse, they simply have different roots. I have never perceived a contradiction between humanities and social sciences on one hand and natural and technical sciences on the other hand, but I am not claiming they are both the same. Each scientific discipline has its own foundation, thinking process and methods on which it is based. The processes differ and I sometimes tend to joke that the brain of my colleagues from humanities and social sciences might be simply organised differently. They simply have different reasoning. They tend to consider more the impact of social networks and relations and their specific possible influence on the outcomes with respect to particular schools and their interdependence. In natural and technical sciences, I plan an experiment and based on the obtained data I interpret results, one way or the other. I make statistics and there are clear results, either confirming or not. At the Academic Council, it takes time for all of us to agree, even though we have the same goal. Such diverse thinking can be very enriching. I will mention an example from my discipline, on the border between chemistry and biology. We have started using mathematic evaluation for certain biological or biochemical experiments.

It took us six months to align with our colleague, an expert mathematician who spoke “a different language” and kept asking interesting, from our viewpoint a bit “trivial” questions. to which we had not always an unambiguous answer. I could name dozens such examples. Diversity is truly very precious and real thought-provoking debate can often bring the change of a paradigm in the given discipline.

You have touched upon diversity of thought, my favourite subject for a discussion. What about other kinds of diversity, the gender one, the age one and also the one of different nations? Let us start with the gender diversity.

The representation of men and women differs according to a discipline. In physics, mathematical and geological disciplines, women are not as represented as in humanities or social sciences. But let me make one thing clear – there are always some women represented and they are truly exceptional. In disciplines such as history of art or in humanities or social sciences in general, the proportion of women is more significant. In my discipline, biology and biochemistry, I see the representation of women balanced and I personally have never felt discriminated based on gender. However, women’s biological setting and work-life blend being a mother and a scientist while having small children, is truly challenging. The issue is how to make life easier for working mothers. I support the idea that it would be great to o er certain financial compensation so women can afford to arrange professional care, for children and the household. On the other hand, I do not want to impose my ideas on young families as how to run their lives, it is upon each and every individual to make a decision.

Partial or shared work schemes being often quoted as a potential remedy do not seem to be the solution for the world of science… Science cannot be a part-time job, but it is possible to make some work from home. In humanities and social sciences this can be done more easily, in natural sciences you still have to come to a laboratory to carry out experiments, however, everything else can be done from home – being reading literature, writing and evaluating protocols, working on publications. I personally used to do it this way, my bedroom served as an office. If you are fully engaged in your scientific work, any thinking about a partial scheme becomes irrelevant.

Now, let us turn to the age diversity. Recently there was a discussion about the need to support young PhD. students. Are young people running away from science? If someone has a true desire for research, even harsh conditions can be overcome.

I discussed this issue with my friend and colleague from Cambridge University. We agreed that our motivation to pursue science had its origins in our families. Both of us simply could not imagine doing anything else. In my case, this was particularly true during the time when I was preparing myself for a post-graduate degree and my husband and I barely made ends meet. Then I left for a maternity leave, I returned just prior to the Velvet Revolution and in early nineties, there was a sharp price liberalization. Personally, I had the feeling of lack of finances for several decades. The most important issue is that finances should not drop bellow a certain level but again, it depends on each and every individual. Some colleagues come already from wealthy families so they are not under the pressure of having their salary as the only income possible. On the other hand, those couples that engage in science and have a post-gradual scholarship as the only income and on top of that they wish to establish a family, they truly face challenging conditions. Overall, age diversity differs, discipline to discipline, institute to institute. Some institutes can afford to support younger scientists, some cannot. The rule that mixed teams not only according to gender, but also according to age, function the best, is also true in science.

Last but not least, what about international diversity? Are we capable of attracting scientists from abroad?

Here we come back to the issue of nance. We are successful in attracting scientists from Slovakia but for me it is a rather a sad fact that they are considered foreigners. Then we attract scientists from Ukraine. As far as colleagues from the West are concerned, the situation is more challenging. Often, colleagues from southern European countries are interested in living in the Czech Republic and they find resources we provide sufficient. Most scientific institutes cannot afford costs related to inviting an expert scientist from abroad, only few institutes such as ELI-Beamlines, Biocev, CEITEC or the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry can afford to invite individuals. These institutes have resources either from European funds or from license schemes, as it is the case of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. However, I perceive the environment is becoming more international as there are already several institutes where English is the working language. The better the institute, the easier it is to attract colleagues from abroad.

By Linda Štucbartová