“Our Smart Landscape project is attracting attention around the world”
Prof. Ing. Petr Sklenička is Rector of the Czech University of Life Sciences, as well as President of the Czech Rectors Conference. Although both these roles must require a lot of management, he still carries on work in his specialisation, which is ever more relevant, focusing on the protection of the landscape and soil. During the course of the interview, I asked him not just about the current situation in the Czech Republic, but also about climate change in general. The very first question gave me lessons in the unpredictability of the weather, and the unreliability of long-term forecasts. We undertook the interview in cold and rainy mid-July, when forecasts were warning us that the summer was already over. I edited the final version for print in the sultry days of August, which show in Prague in particular that neither the city nor its inhabitants are prepared for the nature of our weather. And how ready is society for other threats? What are the actual risks that threaten us which have faded into the tumult of information we are assaulted with every day? Do we fully appreciate Czech higher education? From my discussion with ambassadors, I have received only words of praise. Let us be proud of our universities and their students, because in fact we are doing much better than one might think from the frequent complaints in the media. My interview with the professor concluded with a passionate introduction to the Smart Landscape project, which not only has global potential, but is also an excellent example of co-operation between universities and the commercial sector. I recommend this discussion of important issues as compulsory reading for all those who are not indifferent to the future.
How do you perceive the course of this summer? First it seemed wet, then August saw the return of heat, which long-range forecasts had not predicted.
If you look at the long-term average, in the Czech Republic we’re missing a year of precipitation, some 500-700 mm of precipitation depending on the region. In terms of rain, the first half of summer might appear to be above-average, but in terms of replenishing the deep springs which allow water to flow in our streams and rivers during dry periods, it still isn’t enough. We’d need rainy summers for two to three years in a row. It is common to find one normal year in between dry years, but this shouldn’t reassure us. I’m glad that in contrast to 10 or 20 years ago when we only focused on extremes, flood or drought, and in-between when the responsible ministers did not show much interest, today I can see great interest all the time. We can see that we have learnt our lesson, and we aren’t just living with the short term in mind. And I always stress that droughts and floods are two sides of the same coin.
Do we know what we need to do in terms of maintaining our landscape or not? In the previous issue of our magazine, I interviewed the President of the Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, who claims that we know how to restore the natural character of the landscape, and that we only need to apply the solution in practice.
The Senate President and I have had substantive discussions on this issue, and I would have to disagree with him. We don’t know what we need to do. I would even say that you won’t find an adequate response to climate change and how to adapt to climate change in Europe, nor elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we have ideas about reducing our carbon footprint. Perhaps at the level of the utterances of ministers and prime ministers, we know what to do. But amongst experts we are fumbling around to determine how to systematically adapt our landscape to withstand harsher climatic conditions. I particularly stress the word “systematically” here. What we’re doing now is like travelling on a canoe with ten holes in it, and I’m trying to plug them with my two hands and two feet; we’re only plugging the largest holes. What we’re doing now is dealing with particular elements, copses or hedgerows. We’re also building ponds; the Agriculture Minister speaks of one pond per day, but this only impacts its immediate surroundings. It does not resolve the wider picture.
So what should we picture from the term “systematic measures”?
Systematic measures are mutually conditional, they are multi-objective and together they produce a synergistic effect. I can achieve a greater effect with the same money, or the same effect with less money. I often talk about a sophisticated water management network. If this increasing drought is going to continue, we may need to manage even the water in the open countryside in a more sophisticated manner than we do for drinking water. We need to build up a network of reservoirs to capture rainwater, as happens in Israel for example. The English term “stormwater harvesting” is what we’re looking at. Our future forecasts show that an increasing amount of water is going to be coming from flash storms, something the landscape today is unable to deal with. We therefore need to construct a water management network which can capture water when there is a surplus, and retain it for dry periods. We’ll be collecting water in spring, and returning it to the land as irrigation in summer. For a sophisticated solution like this, just building ponds or basins isn’t enough. We first need to build the system and test it out, but as yet not one has been built anywhere in the world. At our university, we are investigating four types of landscape. We’ve gone furthest in our research of the agricultural landscape, and if we succeed – and we are succeeding – people will be travelling here from around the world to view our solution. We’re constructing a landscape in the Rakovník district which secures smart water management. The Rakovník district currently experiences a third less rainfall than the rest of the country. We’re co-operating with partners who are at the very cutting edge in this project; our irrigation system, for example, is supplied by an Israeli company.
For the sake of completeness, I would add that the other three types of landscape we are investigating are forest, urban and post-mining. We need dozens of pilot projects in which we can implement methods for planners, and the planners will then be able to incorporate comprehensive land modifications into individual projects, so we can transfer our research into standard practice.
You’ve led me into my next question. Will the post-COVID era lead us to begin believing scientists more?
I think it may well do. Let’s talk about the serious issues this pandemic has revealed. These are food security and drought. Luckily, this was not an issue here, but rather in Spain and the USA. In future, we’re going to have to be prepared for all the possible threats which can affect humanity. A combination of threats can create a crisis. There are threats we know how to prepare for and for which we can make estimates, and these include drought, climate change and securing food in a sufficient amount and quality. And then there are threats we cannot predict, including the current COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why we’ve got to preventively grapple with the threats we know are coming. Although the leaders of individual countries have spoken of solidarity, the pandemic has shown that our countries behave poorly toward each other, closing borders, not exporting PPE and, in the event of an emergency, there would even be a ban on food exports. We must be ready for this reality. It’s not about being self-sufficient in food, or the percentage of Czech food in stores, as the media is currently debating. I’m talking about food security, and ensuring food security for the next 50 years. Drought may reduce yields by a third to a half. In 2018, we witnessed herds being culled because there was not enough fodder for cattle. We must be preventively prepared for combinations of these factors. Let’s focus our attention not only on whether we have enough facemasks stocked up, but also on ensuring we have enough stocks of food for a year or two, and that we have the ability to produce food for our people under trying circumstances.
Let’s now look at Czech higher education. Often only shortcomings are spoken of. In contrast, when I talk to foreign ambassadors, I receive positive feedback about our high-quality regional education, new research centres and laboratories paid for through EU funds. So let’s give praise here; this is a skill Czechs still need to learn.
I entirely agree. We should give praise where it is due. Let’s go back to the start of the pandemic, whenweweretrulyafraid,andIknowwhatI’m talking about here, because the first case was here at the Czech University of Life Sciences. We were worried that schools and universities might become hotspots. This is now happening during the second wave underway in Israel. Campuses which are international in nature, frequent trips abroad, the social lives of students – all these predispositions feed the spread of the infection. Not only did these fears not come to pass, but universities and colleges also proved that they are a part of the state’s strategic infrastructure. This was the wording used in a resolution of the Czech Rectors Conference, and we were also praised by the government of the Czech Republic. The course of the Covid-19 pandemic would have been entirely different if not for the students who worked in laboratories, in hospitals, in fields and in care homes. The Czech Republic can truly boast of its high-quality regional education system. The only region missing a higher education institution is the Karlovy Vary Region. Universities and colleges become not just centres of education, but also of culture. I am extremely pleased that we have managed to build up a network of regional universities of a very high quality. We are always pointing out that we don’t have any universities amongst the top one hundred in the world rankings, but we forget to appreciate that we have ten universities in the top thousand. A few years ago, there were only half that number. Czech higher education institutions are qualitatively improving. It isn’t easy to hold your position in the world rankings of universities, never mind climb up it. We’re competing with hundreds of new Asian universities that are trying to break into the rankings.
And weaknesses in Czech education? I perceive two core weaknesses to be insufficient internationalisation and commercialisation.
I’ll start with the massification, or excessively high student numbers, at universities and colleges, which began ten years ago. The rise to achieve 25 % higher education graduates within the population has brought with it a decline in the quality of students. We used to take on 100 well-qualified candidates, but now during a demographic dip we’re also taking students who would previously have fallen well below the line. At the current time, two-thirds of the students we’re taking on at universities and colleges are coming to us from secondary technical and vocational schools. Personally, I would take the path of reducing the numbers of accepted students so we can prioritise quality over quantity. In terms of funding, we could have made use of this demographic dip to reduce the number of students per teacher; we’re falling behind in this criterion compared to advanced universities.
From an internationalisation perspective, I’ve got the latest statistics to hand – in 2000, we had 4 % international students, while in 2020 we have 18 % foreign students. Here at CZU, we actually have 20 % foreign students, which is of great benefit to the university. We’ve still got a lot to catch up on in terms of the internationalisation of teachers and scientists. Too many universities practise so-called “in-breeding”, the practice where a student begins at a particular institution and remains there as professor. Abroad, practice from a number of countries is supported; some expert programmes are only offered in English.
We could spend hours discussing commercialisation. Even the Prime Minister has said that if anyone here comes up with an idea, then it is bought by foreign companies who then monetise it to their advantage. We’re not lacking in infrastructure; we’ve got commercialisation departments, start-ups and spin-off companies at every university. But compared to Israel, for example, our companies seem to me to be rather half-hearted. I’d begin by changing the Czech mentality, so we’re not afraid of failure. In Israel, it’s a given that failure is a part of life. We perceive failure to be entirely negative. Israelis, in contrast, perceive it as an experience they are willing to share and to put in their CVs. Let us encourage each other to seek out and discover those issues of true import.
You’ve already achieved some great milestones; you’re rector at a very successful and dynamic university, and President of the Rectors Conference. What are the important issues for you?
If I set myself some goals, then they’re always in the academic arena. I still enjoy working on our Smart Landscape project and adaptation to climate changes, although I don’t have so much time for this now. If the project does well, people from around the entire world will come here to learn. We’ve surpassed Europe and the world in this project. Seeing the project through dependsaboveallonfunding.Becausetheissue is a popular one, and politicians and journalists know what Smart Landscape means, whenever we don’t get funds from the government budget, representatives of medium and large companies come to me and offer to co-operate, because they want to link their names to a positive project. This is the path for future worthy research; to get figures within notable businesses, banks and agricultural co-operatives on our side. By involving various subjects, projects acquire much greater meaning. I’m looking forward to being able to successfully present our Smart Landscape project not just within the agricultural landscape, which is the furthest advanced, but in time also within the forest landscape, urbanised landscape and post-mining landscape.
Photos by: Jitka Tomečková