The global economic crisis has hit Czech scientific research hard and is bringing to light skeletons in the closet in the form of unresolved problems. The state is trying to make researchers raise productivity, but the way it is going about it is generating many disputes.
In the public, it is mostly perceived as a battle between the Academy of Sciences and universities over who gets more money from the state budget. In fact, however, we are witnesses of a bigger dispute over how Czech sciences should be assessed and finances and how successful is the reform that should secure that the state only gives money to good-quality researchers.
Crisis, Brussels and awarding points to science
Scientists’ concerns about the future were provoked by several factors. The economic crisis broke out and the state budget is falling into huge deficits. The contribution for scientists in the years to come will probably not increase and may even decrease.
At the same time, big from is flowing to the Czech Republic from the european Union, from the so-called structural funds, for which new institutions and laboratories will be built. Brussels will pay 85% of costs, while the remaining 15% is up to the Czech state budget. Where to get it? It will be necessary to economize, so expenditures on research may decrease even more. And the third thing: a new methodology of science assessment has entered the complicated situation on a surprising way.
The Czech Republic spends on science fro the state budget so much that it ranks among average countries of the EU. But if we look at the results, we will find out that we have not reached the European average yet. We lag behind in number of quotations (that means, how important the work of Czech scientists is for the global scientific community) and the number of patents granted. We are even at the tail of Europe by patent numbers. (Just the initial costs of a Europe-wide patent reach CZK 1 million and it is not sure beforehand whether it would bring any money in the end. Nothing forces scientists to starts such an uncertain business.)
Dissatisfaction with results of Czech science grew over years. A debate therefore started about how to achieve that only good-quality scientists get money from the state. But how to assess them? Gradually an interesting idea emerged, which however was not tested in the world: let’s sum up the objective results of all teams, that is publications, patents, new technologies, books etc. Then award a certain number of points to each result and get a guide based on which scientists will get money.
The methodology, which scientists themselves helped to create, entered the scene somewhere around 2005. As of this year, it is more or less becoming a universal tool for distributing money to the whole Czech science.
Although many scientists had been calling for something like that for years, the universal coverage of the methodology raises doubts. Is it possible to use a single methodology to assess doctors, philosophers, historians, aircraft developers and all other researchers from all possible branches? And is possible to allocate money based on it automatically?
Metabolism without nutrients
„It suprised us,“ says Jiří J. Mareš, head of the solid substances physics department, on the fast launch of the methodology. „The Academy overestimated it. We tried to do good-quality research and though it would be reflected in the assessment.“
But it did not. The Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic was not too successful in the assessment. By the total number of points, its results are worse than those of universities. The results can be dramatic: according to one of the variants discussed,the amount of money that the state gives the Academy for its basic metabolism (electricity, wages etc) will decrease by almost a half in the next three years, while universities will get about the same sum as they are paid now.
The Academy would then have to close some institutes or reduce the amount of money for all of the, or start merging with universities. The state budget has not been approved yet, so it is not clear at all how much money the Academy will receive for the years to come. But the idea that at least some of its institutes would become part of universities has appeared in the past and come back on a regular basis.
Many people would agree. “The Academy has to get less money because it is less productive than universities,” says biologist Jan Zrzavý from Jihočeská univerzita. He proposes to partly merge the Academy with universities. “Nobody says that there are no excellent top teams in the Academy. But it is not the whole Academy of Sciences, not everyone in it belong to the best ones.” says Marek Blažka, chairman of the government commission allocating points to scientists. The
Academy says it is more flexible that universities, better managed, and is more likely to focus on long-term research projects. Why to deprive it of its own budget chapter that guarantees freedom? We don’t fear competition, but universities are too bureaucratic, the Academy would dissolve in them. It is good to retain diversity, let’s rather try to economize on our own, not together with universities.
An independent view from abroad comes from Czech-born chemist Josef Michl, who works at the Colorado University. “The Academy underwent a cleaning in the 1990s. Its then chairman Rudolf Zahradník fired a number of people who basically did not do any science. Czech universities did not go through anything like that and the average quality of scientists there is lower than in the academy,” he said. In general, merging the Academy and universities is not a bad ides, he said. The Academy would be more stable because politicians cannot cut budget for students so easily. However, in Czech conditions, Michl recommends to transfer universities under the Academy and not the other way round.
So there are different opinions and one cannot rule out that the structure will change. But the change should be based on a really good-quality assessment that would show what works well and what does not.
Sudden awakening of programmers
It is surprising for instance how many computer programmes and various industrial prototypes emerged in the Czech Republic in recent years, whose usefulness is uncertain, but they count: in 2005, when debate on the new methodology started, researches announced 336 results in this disputable category. Two years later many already knew that money is really involved, and the number of results increased to almost 2,500. And producing a new software is not that difficult, often is suffices to adopt the previous version of the same computer programme. “It is just results for results, denying of the meaning of the whole reform of science,” Hořejší said.
Another objection against the methodology came from Pavel Baran, head of the Filozofického ústavu of the Academy of Sciences and a member of the commission that helped preparing the methodology: “You get forty points for a book regardless of whether it is a thin brochure that you write over the summer or a publication containing hundreds of pages, the result of five-year work of several people. It’s absurd. We wanted to change it, but the government council did not accept our proposal.”
“ The methodology can never separate quality from quantity because quality has to be assessed by experts. Just ask in America what they think about that we award points to science here. You can’t even mention it there, it’s shameful,” said Mareš’s colleague from the Academy, Antonín Šimůnek.
Many scientists say the best solution would be not to abandon it completely, but to tune it up and mainly to cancel the categories for hard-to-define results. Then to use it only to assess comparable areas of science. And mainly to use the methodology just as a certain source serving for discussion and for thought, not as strict instructions for money distribution.
Philosopher Pavel Baran has offered an interesting view: “The spirit of the time is certain trivialization of the world, simplification of problems. They ask us how many books and articles we have written ,Give us numbers, sign up for our system, and we will deal with it on our own,‘ they say. But this is not a way to achieve quality. Colleagues will divide a prepared book in two and nothing will be resolved, it will be just more expensive to print it.”