Czech Academy of Sciences head discusses upcoming events to mark 125th anniversary

Jiří Drahoš, photo: Alžběta Švarcová

The Czech Academy of Sciences this year marks 125 years since its establishment. The country’s largest research institution will celebrate the anniversary with a series of events that will take place throughout the whole year. One of the highlights of these celebrations so far was a video mapping on the Academy’s headquarters that took place last week.

Jiří Drahoš,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
Radio Prague’s editor-in-chief Mirek Krupička spoke to Professor Jiří Drahoš, the Chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and began by asking him about the audio-visual show.

“This was probably the most dynamic of all the events that we will present during the year, since we will celebrate the anniversary throughout the whole year. This video-mapping was rather specific – we have never done anything like that before, and I have to say it was really nice and it was very successful.

“It was an audio-visual show projected on the largest screen in Prague, 90 times 20 meters, on the facade of our headquarters that were built in mid-19th century by architect Ignác Ulman. It was used not as a screen, but as part of the video show.

“I have to say people were very satisfied, they applauded after each performance, which lasted about 15 minutes, and they usually stayed for the next one. We have repeated it every half an hour, so I saw four consecutive performances and I have to say it was very nice.”

Yes, I can confirm that, because I visited the show and was among the applauding crowd.

There are a number of activities throughout this year that will commemorate this big anniversary and their aim is to present the Czech Academy of Sciences as a lively and successful institution. Can you name a few events that you consider important and that you would recommend to the public and maybe even to people coming from abroad?

“Certainly. By the way, we started on the 23rd of January in the Senate with a festive meeting, because January 23, 1890 was actually the day when the emperor signed the founding charter of the institution. So it was a formal but very festive event.

“But as I have mentioned already we will continue celebrating throughout the year. We already have a very interesting exhibition in the National Technical Museum.

“We cooperate with important cultural partners, museums and galleries, and in the National Technical Museum there is an exhibition called Science and Technique, an adventure for you. It is very interactive and I can recommend it for whole families, including kids. It will be running for a couple of months.

Video-mapping on the Czech Academy of Sciences building,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“We plan to present an exhibition called Botanical Stories in our Institute of Botany, which is located in a very beautiful park in Průhonice. It will be a very nice and lively exposition, with lots of live species.

“We will also present some exhibitions in the National Museum and the National gallery, so that people will find some interesting event throughout the whole year.”

I myself am specifically interested in two exhibitions connected with art, because the Academy of Sciences was connected with art. It was formally Academy of Arts and Sciences. Can you tell me something about these exhibitions?

“There will be a very interesting exhibition in Salmovský Palace, prepared in cooperation with the National Gallery. The title of this exhibition is Sense for Art: Art Icons in the Czech Academy of Sciences and Art, because the Academy has also functioned as a mercenary and an institution which collected art.

“So there will be very interesting and unique paintings and sculptures by preferably Czech authors, such as Ženíšek, Myslbek, Mařatka and Bílek. So this is certainly an exhibition which might be of interest not just for you and it will get underway in the fall this year.”

There is also an exhibition called Science, Nation, History.

“I am sure it will be also very interesting because it will present the results of our institutes in the field of human and social sciences, but when you spoke about art, there will be one more very interesting exhibition in the National Technical Library, called The Ways Might Be Different.

“It will show contemporary painters whose works were exhibited during communism in the Institutes of the Academy of Sciences. At that time, as you know, it was not easy for many artists to present themselves officially.

Video-mapping on the Czech Academy of Sciences building,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“In the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, which was very popular at that time for these events, we have co-organised (and I took part in some of these events) several exhibitions of artists who were not regarded well by the Communists. So this exhibition, which will take place in the second half of this year, will present the recent history and very recent and contemporary artists.”

Did you want to suggest that these exhibitions were sort of illegal?

“Well, in some sense they were. I remember that in the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, it was never clear when one exhibition ended, whether the next one would be allowed. I have to say it depended on the degree of bravery of the institute’s director. So it was really partly illegal.”

The Czech Academy of Sciences is a very large institution comprising of 53 research institutes. Could you enumerate a few events or successes of Czech science in the past year or two?

“I would say that the quality of research in the Academy of Sciences is reflected for instance by one statistic. The most prestigious grants on the European level are the so-called ERC grants - European Research Council grants and it is not easy to reach them.”

“They have two categories, for younger scientists and for already advanced scientists. And from five advanced grants granted to the Czech Republic, all five went to our Academy. We are also very successful in the category of young scientists.

“So this is just simple statistics which show that the Academy of Sciences is the most important research institution in the country. I can of course speak about the results, but if you look at the Academy’s website you can see some interesting results almost every day, so it is difficult to choose among them.

“To mention just a few, the Institute of Microbiology recently discovered the physical nature of conversion of light into heat. That is, they explained the mechanism of how plants fulfil the role of microscopic solar panels. So this was published in a very prestigious journal and it is definitely very interesting.

Petr Neužil,  photo: Czech Television
“I also want to mention Professor Neužil, who works partly in our Institute of Biotechnology and partly in Australia. He and his team focus on the research of anti-cancer drugs and the mechanism of cancer growth.

“A couple of weeks ago they came with very interesting findings which show how tumour cells can reactivate themselves even after anti-cancer treatments and they explain in a very interesting way the mechanism of how they do that.”

“But of course we also have many interesting results in the field of humanities and social sciences. I could really spend a couple of minutes by listing at least the recent successes but it is certainly not the purpose of this programme.”

What about your field? You did research and I guess you still do research in the field of physical chemistry.

“Just after finishing the PhD in Physical Chemistry I moved to chemical engineering, which is a very broad discipline. I was involved in research concerning multi-face chemical reactors. It sounds quite complicated but it is actually quite simple.

“A two-phase reactor is like a glass of champagne. You have liquid and small bubbles ascending through the liquid so that is a gas phase and liquid phase. If you add some solid particles, you have a three-phase reactor.

“I have to say unfortunately that I have less and less time for my former hobby, which was science. Being president of the Academy of Sciences really is a full-time job. I am not really happy about that. I still try to keep the contact with students, to give lectures and so on, but my own scientific career will not continue very successfully. “

In one of your speeches earlier this year you mentioned that there will be an international evaluation of the Academy of Sciences. What is this evaluation good for?

Illustrative photo: somkku9 /
“You are right. We organise evaluation of our institutes (this time it will be the teams at the institutes at the Academy) in cooperation with our foreign colleagues. That is, every team will be evaluated by foreign experts.

“We are the only institution in this country which performs something like that. No university or other research institutes do that. We were not forced by the law to do that, but we would like to know what the level of our research is and how competitive we are on the international field.

“The problem which might happen is that usually research evaluation is regarded as something like money distribution, which is not quite true. Of course in the end we distribute the money according to the quality of the institutes, but the peer review evaluation should give much more information: perspective of the team, trajectory of each team, how they evolve, what is their future, and so on. And this is the most important feature of peer review evaluation which we will perform.

The Czech Academy of Sciences is funded by the state and there is an eternal shortage of state money everywhere. Are there any scientific projects that are co-financed by the private sector or by non-state money?

“That is a very broad question, because cooperation with the private sector has several steps but generally speaking our institutes cooperate with companies very often. We have in the Academy during the year several hundred joint projects.

“They range from very simple cooperation, when a company turns to us for help with a simple project or an analysis. But we prefer joint projects which might be funded by the company or partially by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic or something like that, so we have very vivid cooperation.

“We have recently introduced a new strategy at the Academy with respect to the users. The strategy has a motto: Top Research in Public Interest and it is aimed on hand at companies and on the other at the government and the public sector. And we have very big interest from the companies.”

“By the way our budget or our turnover could be divided into three equal parts. One third comes from the state, this is institutional funding, the second part comes from competitions and grant agencies and the third part we get from licenses, patents, cooperation with companies and so on.

“For an institution considered to be the centre a centre of basic research its very unusual compared to foreign institutions. So we have relatively reasonable money from cooperation with industry but it could be better.”