Is Czech science affected by brain drain?

Last week was European Week of Science and Technology. The Czech Republic joined it with a number of events and discussions showing the highlights, but also unveiling the challenges the Czech scientific community is facing. What are the biggest problems Czech science is confronting?

That's a question I put to the chairwoman of the Czech Academy of Sciences Helena Illnerova.

"I think that our biggest problem is probably lack of money and brain drain."

The dictionary defines "brain drain" as the loss of skilled intellectual and technical labour through the movement of such labour to more favourable geographic, economic, or professional environments.

When the borders opened after 1989, a lot of young Czech undergraduate and graduate students were offered scholarships abroad, mainly in the United States and countries of the European Union. Many of them later received fellowships abroad and some of them decided to stay and continue their career in the foreign country. Are the United States and European Union countries sucking up Czech talent? Is the Czech Republic losing its best and brightest? Is brain drain really an issue in this country?

"Yes, definitely. I think it is an issue. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in the future. But I think it is an issue."

38-year-old sociologist Tomas Kostelecky has spent time at universities and research centres in the Netherlands, the United States and Japan. He says young scientists or researchers-to-be have to face numerous hardships in this country.

"I think it depends very much on the age. For the very youngest, probably the most important hardship is just the lack of money. Young scientists are not making a lot of money anywhere but if you really have to struggle to cover some basic needs, it is a problem. I think there is a big financial pressure on them."

Marek Jindra is an entomologist of the same age as Tomas Kostelecky. He, too, thinks, life is not easy for young scientists in the Czech Republic.

"What are the hardships? The country is not being very friendly to the people who would like to work hard. The feeling of lack of appreciation is one problem but I think it's getting better, at least the media have become more interested, it's nice to see. But there is also something the country could do actively to make itself more attractive to the people who would like to return. Because there are such people. It could prepare conditions so that the people do not have such a hard start. So that they don't have to equip their laboratories while already solving grant project for which they are responsible. The institutions that accept these people could offer them more space, some technical personnel, things like that."

Marek Jindra has spent time doing research in Japan and in the United States. Does he think brain drain is a serious threat to Czech science?

"It is hard to tell yet. It is good that people go abroad to complete their education and all of our students who graduate, who obtain a PhD from our university, automatically go the United States. It is expected of them to spend there three or four years, otherwise we would not like them to come back. So again, the problem is reduced to the question, do these people return? And how to motivate them I already hinted."

Although they are very critical as regards working conditions in the Czech Republic and fondly remember the time they spent researching abroad, both these young scientists, Tomas Kostelecky and Marek Jindra, eventually returned to the Czech Republic.

"I received two fellowships when I was a little bit older. I already had a family. I was a little bit tempted to stay abroad but basically, I was not alone to decide and my family background just pulled me back home."

"I have three reasons for coming back. One is I like it here. The second is my parents are here that I need to take care of. And the third one is that I got the chance - I fought for the chance to establish my own research here, to base my own research team here and do independent science. In a foreign country, you can work for somebody but it's very hard to establish your own group."

Nevertheless, the outflow of scientific talent is really happening. But the head of the Czech Academy of Sciences Helena Illnerova says there are solutions.

"I think we have to create some really excellent institutes or places of research at universities, so that people will come also to our country to work here for some time, that the mobility will be balanced. Not just one-way direction but two-way direction. Not just from the country but also to the country."

Michael Londesborough, a 25-year old British chemist, is a rare example of a scientist who chose the other direction and decided to do research in the Czech Republic.

"I first came to the Czech Republic two years ago for a short stay of ten weeks and that was because while I was doing my doctorate in Leeds University in England, the group I was researching in had a longstanding collaboration with a group in Rez nearby Prague which had stretched over 25 years. So my supervisor was very familiar with Rez and he said to me that I should have an opportunity during my PhD studies to go there for a short period. Which I did. And I very much liked it, indeed, I was there for ten weeks and I worked with people which I learnt a lot about. They taught me a lot of chemistry, a lot of new things and I began to realise that indeed there is a lot of potential here which can help me for my career as well. And also I very much enjoyed the country, the people, Prague, the beer, of course. Everything was very attractive to me so I decided that I would like to return for a longer stay. So when I returned back to England, I finished my final year in Leeds, I finished my doctorate, wrote my thesis and then I applied to work here in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, there was very little help for me and there was almost nobody who was able to help with this process, I had to do it fundamentally on my own. Luckily, I was very determined to come to the Czech Republic so that carried me through but I had to sort out my own visa, I had to sort out a lot of the funding and I got no support at all from England, from Britain. But from the Czech Republic, fortunately, I did."

The next possible milestone in the issue of brain drain will be the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union. But no one can be quite sure what is to be expected. Whether increased movement of labour will mean that more people like Michael Londesborough will come and work in this country - or just the reverse - or whether gradual improvement of working conditions for researchers in this country will keep Czech scientific talents at home.