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ICRI 2022: World science comes to Brno

One of the most important events of the Czech Presidency of the EU Council will take place in Brno this year, in large part thanks to Ondřej Hradil, the manager of research infrastructures at Masaryk University.

Ondřej Hradil

Facilities, resources and other services used by the scientific community to conduct research in their respective fields, from supercomputers to test tubes, various collections, archives, data sources and even space telescopes – all of these things make up what is known by the rather obscure term “research infrastructures”. Without realising it, virtually all people are affected in some way by their existence and the research they facilitate. They are governed by a special legal framework, they have their own strategic forum that guides the agenda and they have their dedicated conference: the International Conference on Research Infrastructures (ICRI). One of the most important events of the Czech Presidency of the EU Council will take place in Brno this year, in large part thanks to Ondřej Hradil, the manager of research infrastructures at Masaryk University.

What is your role at MU? What do you usually do when you are not organising ICRI 2022?

In general, I try to make sure that Masaryk University has the right instruments and strategy to better manage and operate research infrastructures. We have thirteen of them and they are all funded by the Czech Ministry of Education, which of course has some expectations regarding the results. In addition, most are involved in European consortia as part of which they also apply for funding, either for operations or for research projects. However, apart from these research infrastructures that are officially listed on the Roadmap – a strategy regularly updated by the Ministry that determines how the Czech Republic can respond to challenges and opportunities in research and research infrastructures – the university is also home to a number of research teams whose activities may eventually lead to the establishment of research infrastructures at faculty, university or even higher levels. So I also advise them on what to do, how to do it, how to organise and where to look for funding, to name a few things. At the same time, I am the Czech Republic’s representative in the Implementation Group of ESFRI, the European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures.

What brought you to research infrastructures?

I spent five years in Brussels as a representative of the Czech Chamber of Commerce to the European institutions. When I moved back to Brno in 2007, I started working on getting CZK 5.25 billion in funding from the European Structural Funds to create the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC). Then I was involved in setting up the core facilities there – that is the system of shared laboratories which, with various improvements, has been in place to the present day.

How did you come up with the idea to bring the International Conference on Research Infrastructures (ICRI) to Brno?

ICRI is a well-established event and I first thought of bringing it here four years ago when I attended the conference in Vienna. Coincidentally, it was during the Austrian Presidency of the EU Council. All I had to do then was to figure out when the Czech Presidency was coming up and pitch the idea to the scientific director of CEITEC, Professor Koča, who sadly passed away last year. He said: “All right, Ondřej,” so I started working on it. I am extremely happy that we managed to get the other organising bodies, including the Ministry of Education and the European Commission, on board with the idea and convinced them of the conference’s importance and prestige, and finally brought ICRI from Prague to Brno as one of only a few such events during the Czech Presidency.

How does Brno, and the Czech Republic as a whole, hold up in terms of research infrastructures compared to the rest of the world?

Very well. The Ministry of Education, for example, regularly organises a review of research infrastructures. In many countries, this process is often organised rather haphazardly. What is also not commonplace abroad is a clear system of funding, whereby national funds pay for the operation of research infrastructures and European Structural Funds pay for investments so that the infrastructures remain sufficiently modern and can be used for cutting-edge research. To put it simply: we have a system in place. In certain aspects, other countries often look to the Czech Republic as an example to follow. As Czechs, we sometimes forget about this and pessimistically assume that nothing works around here.

On the funding side, there is currently a debate on how to fund research infrastructures in the post-2023 period. Can ICRI contribute something to the discussion?

This is an issue for the Ministry of Education, which makes proposals to the government’s Research, Development and Innovation Council, and for the Czech Government, which ultimately approves the funding. It would be nice if these bodies could reach an agreement before ICRI begins so that we can present it at the conference. It is also high time because the current research infrastructure funding scheme ends this December. We can contribute to the debate by letting the public know about this issue and raising awareness about the benefits of research infrastructures, what they do and how they can help with problems such as the energy crisis, pandemics and the environment. The conference will also present ideas on how to measure the impact of research infrastructures. In short, we are trying to emphasise the message that we have such capacities here and that the government should use them to its advantage as effectively as possible since it has already invested money into them.

That is not happening, in your view?

There is certainly room for improvement. Take the pandemic that we have been dealing with for the past two years. All the biomedical centres such as CEITEC, BIOCEV and others have instruments that can sequence new variants of the virus and can help with testing. Therefore, they can be extremely useful in dealing with the situation. Unfortunately, the government has not been able to use these capacities properly, even though it was known that there was a need for more testing and sequencing in the next phase of the pandemic. Still, the infrastructure itself was, is, and hopefully will be there for just such crisis situations. This particular example falls under the Ministry of Health, and it has to be said that some ministries are better at utilising the potential of research infrastructures than others.

According to the most recent Roadmap, Masaryk University is involved in thirteen research infrastructures as a partner or directly as the host institution. Which of them can we be most proud of, globally speaking?

It is of course prestigious that we have the core know-how and coordinate the infrastructures. That’s the case of RECETOX and its success in the European roadmap with the EIRENE project. Masaryk University also hosts CIISB, or the Czech Infrastructure for Integrative Structural Biology operated under CEITEC. These places put us among world leaders.

How important is the university environment for the operation of research infrastructures?

Research infrastructures, with the exception of those that are large enough in their own right – such as CERN, for example – are typically the result of collaboration among many researchers, either those working at the university or associated with institutions such as the Academy of Sciences or private research institutes. An individual scientist cannot possibly know about all the current techniques and trends in his or her field, nor can everyone be equipped with the latest technology worth tens of millions of Czech crowns which would then lie underutilised if reserved only for that particular researcher. The purpose of research infrastructures is thus to make scientific work more efficient and economical. We know, for example, that it makes no sense to build a new giant laser facility in Brno because the scientists who need it for their research can go to the ELI Beamlines laser centre in Dolní Břežany, which, incidentally, houses the most powerful laser in the world. The need to streamline and share costs is particularly apparent these days, when we have a global crisis and energy prices are rising.

Where do you see further potential in existing research infrastructures?

The fundamental potential lies in providing unique expertise and services to the wider scientific community. Even existing infrastructures need to streamline their operations. There are about fifty-five of them in the Roadmap at the moment, of which almost twenty operate in the field of physics. Is that too many or not enough? Should we encourage those that are close to each other to collaborate more? Research infrastructures provide services to researchers. One is right to ask whether they are utilised sufficiently by relevant users, that is those who perform quality research (whether they are from the Czech Republic or abroad) and achieve good results in their fields. Maybe sometime in the future, some of these people will become Nobel Prize winners who will tell others that they did their research at ELI in Dolní Břežany or at CEITEC Nano. Of course, scientists need to know that these capacities exist and that they can use them, which is a matter of communication linked to the university’s strategy so that the university can showcase and offer them to scientists. Each year, for example, we have new PhD candidates to whom we as a university have to communicate this information because they are the literal science workers who go to the laboratories and use them. I do believe that the ICRI conference can be beneficial in this regard, too.