Ženíšek: Institutions must present themselves and go out to the people, even to schools

Marek Ženíšek was appointed Minister for Science, Research and Innovation on Thursday 16 May 2024. He thinks that he will be able to look at his new agenda from a distance and decide what makes sense to insist on and what to give up. In the interview, he elaborates on the bottlenecks in the new law and his other priorities. He considers it important that institutions are not afraid to go out to the people and present their work.

11. 6. 2024

The first meeting of the Council for Science, Research and Innovation (CSRI) is behind you. How did you feel about it?

I had a good feeling about it, it worked very well. Of course, the members are aware of the weight of this advisory body and sometimes they are a bit disappointed when their recommendations are not heard by the government, for example on the budget issue.

What is your experience with science? Was it challenging for you to break into this field?

I worked for some time both in an academic environment and in an official role - I was the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Health Studies at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen. I know a number of rectors and deans. And because TOP 09 has two ministerial posts in the government (health and science, research and innovation, ed.), we discussed news and problems from these two areas every week at the parliamentary club. I dare say that in the two and a half years since then I have gained a rough overview of what is happening and what is being planned in this area, without knowing that I would ever use it and hold this post.

I don't share the view that a minister should be a scientist. Just as the Minister of Agriculture need not be a farmer or the Minister of Defence a retired soldier. Every minister is primarily a member of the Cabinet, which makes decisions in the House, and then only adds the post for which he is responsible. He should have mainly managerial, negotiating and political skills. For example, even the passage of the budget is a purely political matter. I have a lot of political experience. For example, I served as Deputy Minister of Justice at a time when the new Civil and Criminal Codes were being adopted, which were not easy to enforce.

Do you not share the fears of some that you will now spend a year and a half familiarising yourself with the agenda and will not be able to do anything?

No. It is necessary to be able to set out the main objectives, and the time limit also gives me a certain freedom to look at the agenda so far with a bit of distance and assess whether it can be done and what is a major priority. If, for example, it is not better to decide that a bill will not cover everything, but will have a better chance of being passed.

Have you had a chance to read the bill?

Yes, it is my second priority after the budget. There are a lot of comments and I have to choose a strategy on what to do about it. There are a number of headings in the draft that, while they may have been essential for the drafters and set out an ideal goal, are the biggest complication and contradiction with the commenting points.

What is the biggest problem?

For example, the new single information system, which was supposed to be a kind of flagship for reducing bureaucracy. On the one hand, it was supposed to solve a number of things and cut red tape for both users and providers, whose information systems will soon need to be renewed or replaced anyway. Naturally, then, this single system would replace several current systems. At the same time, there is understandable and natural resistance from some to changing what they are used to. And I need to find out whether that resistance is principled or whether it is more due to concerns that the system will not be ready in time. There are such concerns on our side as well. We need to be able to get it out in time for the system to work. But that can be addressed by a sufficient transition period.

What was the new information system supposed to unify and replace? GRIS of the Grant Agency, SISTA of the Technology Agency or even ISKP for the Jan Amos Komenský Operational Programme?

Yes, it was supposed to be a single information system like the European Commission. However, we are discussing whether the system should be so robust or whether it should just be a portal that will be connected to the current systems and whether the systems will be connected to it gradually. I am still finding out myself what the idea was of what the new information system should be able to do. We are defining what the system should necessarily contain in order to make sense to do it at all.

Sometimes the resistance of providers can be simply due to laziness to learn something new, to leave the printed spreadsheets behind and move into the 21st century. But I realize that my time is limited. If providers object to the system on principle, I have to think about whether it's worth fighting for and educating someone that the times have advanced

On the other hand, many countries, including Germany, Austria and Britain, have no such law. Is there any need for it?

In the UK, they don't even have a constitution and it works. We are still going through some transformation here, and the various points in the law are to help make some areas predictable, such as knowledge transfer. That is why standards are made. Why it is necessary to have a law for everything in this country is a different, political science question.

The question is also why are our legal norms so comprehensive? The new draft law is 74 pages long. However, the European Framework for State Support for Research, Development and Innovation has only 29 pages.

Yes, that was my first question. I do not think that I will be able to avoid a reduction precisely because of the large number of comments. I will have to think for each paragraph whether it is worth fighting for. At the same time, I still have to keep in mind that if I leave something out, it still has to hold together as a whole, and the Bill has to add value in itself.

Why can't the bill and the explanatory memorandum be quickly and clearly tracked down on, for example, the RVVI website? The law is indeed in the so-called eclipse, but only insiders can find it there.

Once the comments have been dealt with, I think the law deserves its own way of communication and presentation, perhaps even its own website. And public debate will go hand in hand with political debate.

Many scientists would certainly complain in a public consultation about excessive scrutiny of the use of earmarked funds. I have looked at the new Bill, but the section about providers having to control spending has not exactly dropped out. Why is it not enough for the Treasury to control it? Why should providers, whose role should be more to control the substance, also control the drawdown?

This paragraph is also subject to further evaluation. It is two-sided. Some complain that the control itself takes up more of the agenda than the project itself. But alongside this, there is a narrative in the media and among some colleagues in government that there are enough funds but the state has no control over what the funds go to. We need to stop looking at science as a black hole and questioning the purpose of the spending. Defence used to be such a sticking point, and today, in principle, most people do not question the fact that we give 2% of GDP to defence by law. But it is also the job of scientific institutions to be able to present their outputs to the public, not just to the scientific community. To present positive stories.

Science spending always tends to be the first to be scrapped by colleagues in government, because they argue that it is not mandated spending, salaries, contracted highway repairs, etc. I am certainly at a disadvantage there, and a large part of science spending belongs to departments, almost half of it goes to the Ministry of Education, a large part goes to the Ministry of Industry, etc. It is naive to think that, in the political reality, members of the Government will be enlightened and say: aha, Mark, you are actually right, we are going to put money into innovation now, and the world will be a better and cheaper place one day because of its outputs.

How are you going to get people to see sense in investing in science?

One of my goals is to show the public and my colleagues that science is not just the business of some smart people and the academy, but that it has an impact on our lives. Children in primary school need to know that innovation is what drives the world forward. And it's not about innovating a candle to get a light bulb, it's about research to bring something completely new.

In the Czech Republic, we also didn't just have the innovators Otto Wichterle and Professor Holý, but today and every day there are many small things happening here that we are good at. And we have to present that, to come out with it.

A few days ago, the Science Fair took place and 58,000 people attended. But some scientists view it with disdain as a circus.

People like the circus. And they want it to come to them. The idea that there will be a gaggle of people standing outside the Academy building on the National or outside universities, wanting to ring the doorbell and actively ask what's new, is utopian. You have to go out to meet people. Institutions have to present themselves and go out to the schools, for example, already to the children. Children already need to know that science is not some closed area that I will only get into once I graduate from a few schools. It's really important and it's been neglected for years. And this neglect will pay off for institutions in the long run, because if people don't see the point of spending on science, they will reflect that in their choice of politicians. And then there will be somebody who will sit in the chair who will not be able to defend the science budget to their colleagues. I was only at the Science Fair for a short time, but I was impressed by the way many scientists are able to present their work. For example, at one booth they presented the history of the Romans in Moravia.

Do you want to force or motivate institutions to be more visible? Perhaps through the Evaluation Methodology?

That may be the way to go. But I think the best way is to show good practice. It's not just a case of someone taking the piss, putting something on the website and that's the end of it.

I would also like to touch on knowledge transfer, which is often mentioned in connection with the new law. It has been presented that the posts of four scientific advisers in the ministries are to be created by the end of the year. Which ones?

I do not know why four, and I have it on my list of questions to find out the story and the logic behind that. There may also be such questions around science diplomacy (at the moment we have three science diplomats, in the US, Israel and Taiwan, ed.). The post of Minister for Science, Research and Innovation is a very cross-cutting one. At some point in the future, but I won't be able to make it, the question of a separate ministry will be raised again, because it is clear that when something falls under the Ministry of Education and Science, something under the Ministry of Industry and Trade - for example, tax deductions - something under other ministries, it is difficult to coordinate it all, and often science is not a priority within those ministries because they are in charge of other agendas.

Do you have an ambition to enter these ministries into the agenda, for example, to propose to the Ministry of Education and Science that the positions of professors and associate professors be opened for foreign scientists within the framework of open competitions, which could help the internationalization of Czech science?

That would be nice, and surely if someone were to look at our Czech basin from Mars, they would find our current system strange and perhaps dysfunctional. I could be provocative with such proposals, but it is completely unrealistic that it would pass in the year and a half. Another such debate could be had about setting the powers of academic senates, whether, for example, they should be involved in erudite activities such as the university budget, and whether the position of boards of trustees should be strengthened. That is a debate that I do not think can be avoided. But it is not my task now, and it is not an easy one, because it is often in the vein of the Surely, Minister series. Many who are concerned will not support it publicly, even if they think so privately. Perhaps because their election is dependent on the Senate.

Facilitating the recruitment of foreign workers is another cross-cutting issue.

Just on Wednesday, 5 June 2024, we had an Order in Government listing nine countries from which workers will not need work permits. These include countries where universities could touch, such as the US or Australia. My perception is that attracting foreign workers is not just about whether we will have supernova workplaces with amazing facilities, but whether a foreign worker can easily come here without permits and red tape. And we need to systematically monitor conditions in neighbouring countries to see if it's easier for them and they won't be pulling our "brains". It is also about the amount of institutional support, which I want to increase, but primarily in organisations that are excellent.

And how do you want to do that? By modifying, for example, Module 1 or 2 in the Evaluation Methodology?

Yes, a modification of the Evaluation Methodology is the closest thing to seeing the light of day, hopefully before the budget is approved and certainly before the new law. Adjusting some of the parameters should help, but let us not expect to make some miracle methodology that will be an instant cure. I think the institutions themselves should also strive for excellence and somehow address the issue of publishing in predatory or irrelevant journals, for example.

You are also working on adjusting the National Priorities for Focused Research, and at the press conference you identified quantum technologies, semiconductors and artificial intelligence as key sectors. Why not biotechnology?

I see biotech as already being at the cutting edge and having a life of its own. I wasn't present when the priorities were discussed, but that's my explanation. Biotech is taken as strategic sort of automatically.

Scientists and institutions would, I think, welcome it if the onus of knowing these strategic government documents was not placed on them. When writing grant applications, they often have to write out how the application is aligned with the RIS3 strategy, with the National Priorities for Directed Research, with the KETs. Shouldn't this be assessed by the funder rather than the applicant? And then you have the 245-page General Rules of the Operational Programme...

Surely, everything should be much more concise and clear. I would not want to read 245 pages either.

The so-called transfer reform also mentions the creation of a transfer investment fund. When will it be established and by whom will it be managed?

I see this as very important and I think it could help the transfer industry a lot. But I cannot give specific answers to these questions at the moment. However, I would like to stress that the transfer is not a new thing, but that it is already under way. And we need to show positive examples. I would like to help with that too.

Will you keep the team of your predecessor?

I am relying on my fellow deputies, on the Director-General, on the Section. The rest of the cabinet may change from time to time. 

What do you want to do to increase visibility? Your predecessor was blamed for low visibility.

Paradoxically, the changeover helped make the science area very visible; many journalists told me that they had to study the background and get into the scientific environment for that. I want my agenda to be visible in the media and to make science a public issue, perhaps like defence has done.