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Scientists vs education minister

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Disputes about the financing of Czech science have been already noticed abroad. The prestigious Nature science journal ran an article on this in its latest issue.

The article quotes Czech scientists who warn that the new system of science evaluation and financing will harm the Academy of Sciences as well as basic research in general. The poorly-set evaluation criteria that consist of mechanically assigning points to scientific teams based on their results do not motivate scientists to strive for quality. On the contrary, they force them to churn out results that are not of too high quality at the expense of some really valuable ones, such as publishing in prestigious peer-reviewed journals.

The new system of science evaluation dubbed “the coffee grinder” is indeed very doubtful in its current form. The plan that counts on cutting the Academy of Sciences’s budget by almost one half within the next three years and that would basically destroy an institution where the best Czech science can be found, seems completely unacceptable. However, the issue is not simply black and white, and it is always good to provide space for both sides of the dispute; it was interesting to listen to what Education Ministry Miroslava Kopicová had to say to scientists at the Academy’s extraordinary session last week.

Next year the academy should get 20% less money compared to this year for so-called institutional expenses (meaning the institution’s operational costs, salaries and the like). In absolute numbers, the academy would get about CZK 1 billion less. It is a lot of money; on the other hand, it represents a decrease to the 2006 level, while the number of employees is basically the same. Such cuts are therefore not liquidating. It is possible to save money, Kopicová said.

The minister also pointed out the fact that the decrease by CZK 1 billion (by CZK 1.3 billion, to be exact) consists of two parts: CZK 560 million is to be blamed on the economic crisis and similar cuts are made everywhere in the world. According to the minister, it was necessary to cut the remaining CZK 470 million as the state no longer has money on long-term projects that had been negotiated earlier, as the expenses for these projects grow uncontrollably every year – it is actually analogical to mandatory expenses of the state budget. It is money that flows automatically into the academy. There is no need to compete for it. In the past five years, the academy’s institutes received a total of CZK 9.5 billion in tenders from the state budget, while universities received CZK 12.5 billion, but if we look at the incomes that were negotiated in advance (they are used to finance the so-called research plans), the ratio is exactly the other way round. As if – the subtext of the minister’s words indicated – in contrast to universities, the Academy was sure of its own money and it was not able or willing to compete for it that much.

Not even in her next speech did the minister spare the academics much: She pointed out that there are too many administrative workers in the academy and, as if incidentally, she showed the annual expenses for the operation of the academy’s headquarters at Národní třída (CZK 750 million this year) and she also reminded the audience that dozens of billions of crowns from EU structural funds will be spent in the Czech Republic in the next few years. Even if the academy got just a portion of the money, it would be a very significant incentive because some of the money could be used for salaries and operation of the academy’s institutes, according to Kopicová. “It will be probably necessary that your economists better structure your budget. However, if real problems came up, we’d be ready to help you,” Kopicová told the academics.

The minister undoubtedly deserves to be praised for her courage to speak in front of a not exactly friendly audience and for a well-prepared speech full of numbers. However, she was not able to say, why the academy’s budget should shrink also in the following years (she only said that no final decision has been made), and she did not explain what role the nonsensical and widely criticised “coffee grinder” is playing in that. The offer of possible governmental help to the endangered academy did sound frank, but the minister will be in her office only till autumn and nobody knows what will happen after that.

So the fears of scientists are probably legitimate; the Academy’s fate really is uncertain. If this leads to the end of the famous institution with many top-quality teams, Nature magazine might devote even more space to it – however, it would be too late by then, and hardly anybody would be interested in such publicity.

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