Professor Vaclav Mejstrik
Institute of Landscape Ecology
Czech Academy of Sciences

The Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was founded in 1952 on the standard Soviet model. In 1969 it was comprised of 87 research institutes, and a learned society. The Academy was relatively free from state ideology during the communist regime. In 1989, it was made up of 12.500 staff, 7.854 of whom were scientists. Now the Academy is comprised of 4.780 scientists and 70 institutes, and its staff totals over 7.000. Since the velvet revolution, about 50% of all researchers and technicians have left science. Since 1989, the budget for basic research institutions has been cut dramatically, causing deterioration in research capacity. The remaining research capacity, crucial for future technological innovation, suffers from major structural problems. Academic institutions, long left in a traditional socialist, secure market are now forced to find new ways to organise management and increase their income. Most scientists agree that the Czech Republic cannot and should not support as much basic science as was supported during the communist regime.

There were two reasons for the decrease in the number of researchers in the Academy’s institutes. The first is the improved efficiency and productivity of research institutes and the reduction of under-developed scientific fields. The second reason is because scientists in the private sector are much better paid and have more stable jobs. The average monthly salary in the Academy is now about 350 DM. Scientists there have always been relatively poorly paid in comparison to other occupational groups. Young scientists are generally unable to support their families on their salaries which are below the national average for state employees. This had resulted in an expansion of the practice of taking on additional private work, which is often performed in the institute on behalf of other organisations. This situation produced negative opinions in the media and the political arena, but had little impact on the prestige of the Academy in the eyes of the general public.

The current shrinking of the scientific community is random and incidental. However, the people leaving science include some of the best young talent. There has recently been considerable discussion about “human capital” and the “brain drain”. Contrary to conventional thought, few scientists have left the Czech Republic. Some scientists have left their basic research institutes to work on projects for foreign business. Many more researchers have left science altogether, though they have stayed in the Czech Republic. In my opinion, this process is inevitable, and probably desirable. Hundreds of talented Czechs became scientists during the communist regime by default, as science was one of the few outlets for creative people. Presently, there are many opportunities in the private sector and some of these gifted people can, and should, move in that direction. Science’s loss will be the economy’s gain.

Czechoslovakia, with its centrally planned economy during the communist regime, was rigid and lacked sensitivity and adaptability towards the technological development happening outside the Soviet Block. Since socialism gave priority to science, the actual research system we have today is relatively well developed. But the typical corporate strategy was passive and conservative, relying on using accumulated data rather than introducing new, more risky, technologies. The collapse of the integrated East European “market” hit most businesses very badly, and it has been virtually impossible to replace the secure contract system of the past with the market-led new technology orientation. Clearly, such a situation, does not provide a climate for the development of new academic or industrial research. It was also responsible for reducing the prestige given science and technology by the general public. This, though, has not had serious consequences.

The former communist system was based on a linear innovation model which is understood as a technical development model, whereby centrally planned and produced technologies were developed and deployed via a chain of separate institutions unrelated to market pressures. These institutions had a clear purpose and a simple organisation, and were all separate from each other.

Many problems have been inherited along with the existing scientific research structure. The Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was organised in 1952, with a brief to pursue basic research in discipline-based research institutes. The Academy, in fact, performed a dual function. It acted as an eminent society for the scientific elite, while also co-ordinating basic research for the state as a whole. These two overlapping roles caused confusion and even conflict. Members were selected on the basis of honour and reputation rather than on any managerial skill in policy-making. The academicians’ status was guaranteed by political “nomenclature”. Institutes operated under governmental accounting rules with funding from the State budget to meet costs. Funding was allocated to institutions rather than individuals or research groups, while evaluation was weak. After 1968, under central control, this system became more superficial as well as more rigid.

It is possible to identify many sources of this type of inefficiency within Czech science of the past. There was an imbalance between basic and applied research and development. As a rule, basic research was quite good, but development and application of technologies were rather poor. The balance between basic research and applied research could be improved through greater diversity in funding. In the Czech Republic, the central government still provides about 90% of the funding for basic science, whereas in Western countries much of the government funding comes from different sectors. About 80% of basic research is still carried out by the Czech Academy. The lack of diversity in funding is one of many sources of inefficiency. Others include the lack of equipment, poor communications, weak technical support and inflexible inherited structures.

Universities in the Czech Republic were developed to educate, and scientific research was not their prime responsibility. During the decades of socialist administration, higher education and research were separated, resulting in an unhealthy rivalry as they both competed for government resources. Czech universities are deeply conservative and protectionist. For a whole generation, universities were forced to abandon their tradition of free intellectual thought, and research almost disappeared. University staffs are weary of change, and weary of the stress of constant assessment and competition.

It will probably be necessary to shift a lot of the basic and applied research back to the universities, where basic researchers can mingle with applied researchers, and influence the education of the next generation. The present lack of diversity is one of many sources of inefficiency.

There is no consensus on how much effort should be put into either preserving the Academy’s elite research institutes or incorporating them in the university organisation. People from the Academy think that the elite Academy institutions must be preserved and should be given top priority. Others, from the universities, argue that our limited resources should be spent on young scholars and on applied, rather than on basic research, especially during this period of transition. I only hope that the new organisation of basic and applied research in the Academy, in the universities and in technical and development institutes, including the new system of financial support, will be completed this year. And I hope that the current competitive market conditions will bring the latent research capacity of these groups out into the open.

The most important tasks connected with developing more effective basic and applied research in the Czech Republic are:

  • overcoming the historical split between universities and the Academy in the best possible way;
  • clarifying the shape and character of scientific activity in the medium and long term and to establish foci and priorities and how best to meet disciplinary and interdisciplinary needs;
  • determining who is best suited to undertake the very different science-based activities crucial to the future innovation system of the Czech Republic;
  • preparing a new organisation for basic research and contracted R&D, and to formulate new business and management development strategies;
  • improving the University-Academy link. This will depend on wider educational reforms;
  • reforming academia, universities and research institutes. This will depend on the informal reorganisation of decision-making on the one hand, and the setting of clear rules for research and business management on the other.

However, we still have no concept of science policy: science policy is “about priorities”. Science in the communist era was a “feudal system” and this system must now be changed. In a “market economy system” there is no other way.

Dr. Vaclav Mejstrik, botanist and ecologist, graduated from the Agricultural University of Prague with a degree in agronomy and has also received a degree in natural science and biology from Charles University. He obtained his Ph.D. and D.Sc. at the Czechoslovak Academy of Science. Dr. Mejstrik continued his studies at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and at the Institute of Soil Microbiology at the Academy of Sciences in the former U.S.S.R. In the course of studying and researching his fields of interest, Dr. Mejstrik has travelled to twenty-five different countries. He has also published close to four hundred different scholarly titles as well as several books. Dr. Mejstrik, currently Director of the Institute of Landscape Ecology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, was formerly also the Director of Technical Management for the South Bohemia Biological Centre in Ceske Bodejovice.