High-flyer Jakub Hlávka: I don’t get bored easily – I get fascinated by things

Jakub Hlávka, photo: archive of Jakub Hlávka

The young US-based Czech academic Jakub Hlávka is an expert on health policy, working on government projects focused on the Covid pandemic as well as studying the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. But as we shall hear, the high-flyer also has experience in a remarkably broad range of other fields. I spoke to Hlávka, who is 30, from his home in California.

You started out studying International Trade at the University of Economics here in Prague. Tell us a bit about your career path, and how you came to be working now in rather different areas from where you began.

“I had the great luck of working with Václav Havel for his foundation Forum 2000.

“He died in 2011, but when I was still an undergraduate student I was basically an intern at his foundation.

“I was part of two conferences he hosted before he died and of course that was an amazing experience.

“That kind of left a mark on me, so when I was thinking about graduate school, I had the option of either staying in Prague and doing an Engineering Master’s at the University of Economics, or continuing perhaps doing something else a bit different.

“Our report was presented to the leadership of NASA. For a 20-something, that was quite an amazing experience.”

“That’s when I ultimately applied to Georgetown and I thought maybe I could be a diplomat.

“I went to the School of Foreign Service and I was very lucky again, because one of my professors there was Madeleine Albright.

“When I was about to finish I was kind of debating whether to take another internship, perhaps with one of the Washington, D.C. institutions, or go back and maybe join the Diplomatic Academy [in Prague].

“And by complete luck I had an internship with RAND.

“RAND is a research organisation and I thought, Well, it wouldn’t hurt to try to some policy research, to get to know how analysis is done for some of these institutions.

“I went to Cambridge in England, actually, and spent the summer there. And during that summer I learned about their PhD programme in California.

Jakub Hlávka,  photo: archive of Jakub Hlávka

“So ultimately, through a lot of these coincidences, by virtue of working for a multi-disciplinary institution I got to join some healthcare projects.

“And that’s when I realised that some of my applied economics research and education could really help me make a contribution.”

You were named a “Global Shaper” by the World Economic Forum, you’re obviously a real high-flyer and your CV is fascinating. I was also reading that you worked with NASA. What did you do with NASA?

“That was one of the RAND projects, actually.

“RAND is very well-known in the technology and airspace community, aside from pure defence planning work.

“The project I was part of was looking at their airspace and air flight research – so kind of the non-space-based work.

“How does aviation work, how can we improve cooperation between the federal and private sectors.

“That actually was one of my first experiences working for, I would say, a senior decision-maker, because ultimately our report was presented to the leadership of NASA.

“I think that perhaps my entrepreneurial spirit was unique in the Czech environment, where a lot of students might not know that that is possible.”

“I don’t know exactly what they away from it. I think they got a lot of advice.

“But for a 20-something-year-old, that was quite an amazing experience.”

The breadth of your interests is really incredible. As well as these things that you’ve been talking about, you have been involved in combating corruption and are even interested in 3D printing. How do you manage to stay across so many things? Are you the kind of person who easily gets bored?

“I don’t easily get bored. I actually get fascinated by things [laughs].

“Rather than abandoning things that I don’t care about, I usually get hit by the next big thing that either my colleagues are working on or somebody tells me about and I find it interesting.

“I do think that perhaps my entrepreneurial spirit when I was still in high school and college, when I was willing to take on different internships and really explore, was very unique in the Czech environment, where a lot of students might not know that that is possible.

“They might feel that they need to choose one thing and always do that one thing.”

At present you’re an assistant research professor at the University of South California Sol Price School of Public Policy. What exactly are you focused on? What is your day-to-day work?

Jakub Hlávka,  photo: archive of Jakub Hlávka

“Working in health policy, I would say there are pretty much two big areas.

“One I started before the pandemic, and that had to do with the economics of ageing and also access to new therapies.

“We’ve been working especially in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease, studying the impacts of the ageing population in the US, but also in other countries, on healthcare budgets essentially.

“We are really trying to understand what kind of challenges we will face down the line, including in countries like the Czech Republic, which is a little bit older on average than the US.

“We’re looking at what it will mean for long-term term care, but also how prepared we are to handle potential new therapies.

“There are of course a lot of people with dementia or cognitive impairment, so even diagnosing all of these millions of people and then potentially giving them a new therapy would be a huge logistical challenge.

“Kind of like we see now with the vaccinations – it takes a lot of people and a lot of organisation to bring that to patients.

“And now of course the second big part is working on issues relating to the pandemic.

“It was in the years of life that was lost per person for the average person who died.”

“I’ve been lucky that I was able to join two distinct projects.

“One is funded by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and is looking at the effects of some of the contact tracing programmes and some of the traveller quarantines and interventions that were put in place – and also that could have been put in place.

“So kind of understanding what is the most effective way of reducing transmission in the community, and also understanding the economic and healthcare impacts of these different approaches.

“And one of the other ongoing projects is funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

“There I am working with a number of students to really do cost benefit analyses of different interventions – ranging from wearing masks and social distancing, and understanding that even at low costs it can have great benefits, all the way to contact-tracing and business closures and vaccinations.

“And really understanding the magnitude of benefit for every dollar we spend on these interventions.”

The last year must have been extremely fascinating for you from the professional point of view. What do you think are the biggest mistakes that governments have made in connection with handling the Covid crisis?

Jakub Hlávka,  photo: archive of Jakub Hlávka

“The relationship between the scientific community – which is really based on mistakes and learning from mistakes and new discoveries that are not always perfect but making steady progress forward – and representatives at the political level, who sometimes only go for the easy answers or easy fixes, might not be the most beneficial.

“One of the biggest issues is really a lack of humility.

“Even Václav Havel was very good about this, and people didn’t like him for it – he acknowledged his own limitations and he was very aware that even the smartest people in the world don’t have all the answers.

“So I think that level of willingness to engage, to learn, to grow, but also to be transparent – I think especially when it comes to restrictions, like closing businesses, which costs a lot of jobs and money to individual people.

“I think that level of transparency and communication is one of the biggest challenges.

“And then of course the uncertainty about the virus itself.

“I think that is maybe another lesson in how important it is to work across countries – and how damaging it is to have a country like China that didn’t really share a lot of scientific information at the beginning.

“I think because we don’t have the tests and the tracing and all these programmes in place we didn’t really respond as well and as quickly as we could have.”

Living in America, especially when Trump was president, have you sometimes been horrified by the ignoring of science, by the stupid recommendations, by the lies about Covid that have ultimately cost a lot of lives?

“Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright encouraged me to not be one of those young people who go after a good career and stay abroad.”

“I definitely felt disappointed and at many times shocked and distraught.

“Because as you note, it’s not just a political exercise any more when it comes to human lives.

“Even the economy – we can think about better and worse ways of investing in different types of sectors and whatnot, but that doesn’t necessarily link to life and death outcomes.

“So especially in this case it was horrible to see how many people died.

“In some of our work we looked at the average life expectancy of the people who died.

“And it wasn’t in the months – it was in the years of life that was lost per person for the average person who died.

“Even if they had five to 10 years, that is still a huge loss. So I think that was shocking.

“My hope is that the US typically learns from mistakes, and sometimes overreacts, but in this case I do hope that the response will be towards investing in science and better transparency about data, and in the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of some of these interventions, especially in places that are hard hit.

“But, you know, across the world I also think it will make the US more aware again – after four years of being isolationist – that it does need to work with nations around the world: with developing nations, with countries in Europe and allies that it abandoned.

“Because I think that could have helped.

“And of course there was the gutting of the institutions – the White House taskforce and the CDC and the State Department – that really had a lot of experts before the pandemic who were removed for political purposes.

“I think that needs to be renewed and of course that will take a while.”

On a lighter note, as well as your academic work you’re also a violinist. I saw a great video of you playing a solo piece around Christmas time from LA. What role does music play in your life?

Jakub Hlávka,  photo: archive of Jakub Hlávka

“It has been one of the most important gifts of my life and blessings of my life.

“At five years old I started to play the violin.

“I even originally thought that would be my career.

“But at about 15 I had to decide which high school or grammar school to go to, so I decided to go not to go to a conservatory and to stick to academic work.

“But as you know, the Czech Republic has a huge history of classical music and education that is accessible and available.

“So I have been playing ever since, even when I was in D.C. and fairly busy with my school and even during my PhD programme.

“Before the pandemic I was probably playing the most I’ve ever played.

“I joined two orchestras, a symphony and a chamber orchestra.

“I had a chamber group, a quartet, and also I played with a pianist or on my own at different smaller recitals, locally.

“In California the tradition is not as great. I feel there is a big demand for good performances.

“I like to introduce Czech music to any single group that I can.

“I always talk about Dvořák and Smetana and other Czech composers, because they are simply not as well-known here as they are all around Europe.”

You’re 30 years old and your career is going great in the States. What are your plans for the future? Will you stay there, or do you see yourself coming back to the Czech Republic?

“I actually think that’s one of the biggest questions of my life right now.

“It is an incredible privilege to be where I am, working with all these important institutions in the US.

“But I do remember that both Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright encouraged me to not be one of those young people who go after a good career and stay abroad.

“I feel a huge sense of responsibility and I feel drawn to go back to the Czech Republic.

“So I am very much open to it.

“I’m actually thinking about what kind of work I could be doing if I did return, either part-time or full-time.

“Especially because of the pandemic, I think one of the big gaps and opportunities is really finding people who can do work across disciplines, but also sectors.

“So people who could be thinking about big issues with more strategic thinking, with more independence perhaps, and I would say both scientific rigor but also being applied to policy-making and decision-making at the national level.

“That’s one of the big kind of areas of thinking. It still hasn’t crystallised to a specific institution or type of approach I could take.

“But I think in my 30s that will be hopefully an opportunity to give back to my country – but also to use some of the skills that I have learned across all these different disciplines, to hopefully also start contributing to building and educating the next generation of Czech people, who will be able to either follow in my footsteps or even do something greater.

“Because I think that by investing in education and young people we can really see, you know, a light at the end of the tunnel, but also respond to all these big challenges that any single sector or any single discipline cannot always resolve.”