Scholars’ disbelief after Czech ministry axes project

Anger as funding for scientific researchers fails to materialise

August 7, 2014

Eighteen researchers who had been lured to work in the Czech Republic by a multimillion-pound government research call have expressed their anger at the country’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport after the project was cancelled at the eleventh hour because of a lack of funding.

The Kč1 billion (£29 million) Operation Program for Research, Development and Innovation, funded by the ministry and drawing on European Union subsidies, was designed to encourage respected overseas researchers to establish laboratories in the Czech Republic.

It was hoped that the prestigious names from overseas would lead attractive research programmes, mentor young talent within the Czech Republic, and boost the country’s reputation overseas. The call was issued in late 2013; however, following a change of government earlier this year, it was ditched.

Andrew Miller, a visiting professor in the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science at King’s College London, who was set to take up a post in Brno, described the actions of the Czech ministry as “retrogressive”. “After a lengthy application process, we were informed that we had made it through to the final stage. We then learned that the budget that had originally been earmarked for the project had failed to materialise,” he said.

“The fact it has fallen through is not damning of Czech science, which I think punches well above its weight. Rather, it is damning of decision makers in the ministry. Their actions are so obviously damaging to the good name and reputation of Czech scientific research.”

An open letter, signed by eight of the 18 researchers, including Professor Miller, says it was a “complete surprise” when the funding was cancelled.

“In the competitive scientific world, it is common that a grant is not awarded based on scientific arguments about the quality of the proposal, the proposer and the projected impact of the work,” it says. “However, a situation that a funding call would be completely scrapped after all the applications had been evaluated and decisions reached is frankly hard to believe.”

Another researcher, who asked not to be named, said he was still “in shock”. He and his wife had already made arrangements to move to the Czech Republic from Germany.

“We will move without having any dependable income nor any signed work contract,” he said. “One of the other researchers who had been promised that the application would be granted already cancelled his position…bought a house in Plzeň and moved there.”

In a statement, Petra Bartáková, deputy minister of education, said it was “unfortunate” that the call for applicants was published before an “evaluation process” connected to the scheme had taken place – something that she said former education minister Dalibor Štys had been warned not to do.

According to Ms Bartáková, the current minister, Marcel Chládek, had no option but to pull the plug on the scheme, in order to reduce the “burden on the state budget in the coming years”.

“My goal for the future is, despite this setback, to support similar initiatives,” she added. “I share the same opinion as you that the whole situation is very unfortunate and I will do my best to enable scientific excellence projects to use the new operational programme funds at the earliest opportunity.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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