Professor Vaclav Paces elected new chairman of Czech Academy of Sciences

Professor Vaclav Paces

The Czech Academy of Sciences has a new president. After Professor Helena Illnerova's four-year term expired, Professor Vaclav Paces, the former head of the Institute of Molecular Genetics, was elected to chair the institution for the next four years. When I met Professor Paces recently, we first discussed the perennial problem of lack of finances.

"We, of course, face this problem also because of the exchange rate of the Czech crown. You realise that for instance a grant of a million crowns is a reasonable grant in the Czech Republic but it is a very low grant in terms of the euro or the American dollar. It is very important to realise that we are working on the international market so to speak, because all we have to buy - chemicals, for instance, or instruments, we buy abroad.

"There is another problem that is associated with this and that is very low salaries, especially salaries of young scientists. They, of course, have the possibility and chance to go abroad and we are losing, really, young talented scientists.

"What I think we need to do is, first of all, find the money to raise their salaries so that they can live decent lives, they can start families, they can have apartments and so on, and then, of course, to make for them space, so to speak, to return to decent working conditions.

"We'll have to try hard to find for them laboratory space, to find for them starting grants and so on. Not everyone would like to stay abroad. They want to return and the conditions have to be made for them to make it possible for them."

You have been quoted as saying that English should be spoken more widely in Czech research institutions. Do you mean that foreign scientists should come to the Czech Republic?

"In my experience, especially from the United States, you see in the laboratories very few Americans, in fact. There are many Indians, many Chinese, many Russians, also some Czechs and so on and they all, of course, speak English. English is today the language of science. What I meant was to attract more foreigners so that our laboratories and institutes would be more international."

President Vaclav Klaus and Professor Vaclav Paces,  photo: CTK
You also speak much in favour of basic research (as opposed to applied research) which doesn't seem to be very popular these days. Why?

"Well, this is the question of what is the standing of the Academy of Sciences? What is its mission within Czech society or Czech science? I think that every cultural nation has to contribute to the basic results of science. We are a cultural nation and so we also have to share our responsibility in this respect.

"The Academy of Sciences was founded exactly with this mission, exactly to do what we call 'basic research'. What is the best thing that we can offer to society? It is the initiative and invention of individuals. And if the funding of projects were forcefully connected with immediate applications, this initiative and this invention would be somehow restricted. Of course, what is the best result? The best result is if there is something that is applicable, but our experience teaches us that usually or exclusively these good - economically good results stem from basic research.

"Take the contact lenses of Otto Wichterle, take the virostatics of Antonin Holy. I worked with Antonin Holy for many years so I know that before he was successful with his virostatics, for tens of years he was doing basic research and only after that he could build up on these results to bring something so beautiful and excellent as are the virostatics."