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We’re bringing a new culture into science

Jaroslav Koča from Masaryk University has become the new scientific director of the Ceitec institute. What will be his first priorities?

Jaroslav Koča from Masaryk University has become the new scientific director of the Ceitec institute.

Ceitec, the Central European Institute of Technology, was meant to have a scientific director from the very beginning. However, the efforts to find a suitable candidate for this full-time position have only come to fruition this year when Jaroslav Koča, formerly the director of the Ceitec MU University Institute, won the international tender for the position.

What is the role of a scientific director?
I think there are two aspects to this role. The key internal tasks include binding the institute together based on common scientific interests, finding and supporting synergies and seeking to turn them into findings that bring new information. The scientific director also needs to pay close attention to the quality of science and nurture the scientific culture at the institute, while continuously measuring it against similar centres of excellence both home and abroad. Last but not least, he needs to cultivate Ceitec’s exemplary model of building large and costly infrastructures through a consortium.

With regard to the external activities of a scientific director, I think these should mostly focus on an effort to convince politicians that once we managed to build several scientific centres in the Czech Republic, using no small amount of EU funding, we also need to take care of them. The days are gone when a single scientist is awarded a grant, uses it to buy some expensive equipment, and then lets other colleagues use it in a more or less haphazard fashion. From this perspective, the benefit of Ceitec and similar centres for the Czech science is that they create a new culture with clear rules: they build an expensive infrastructure that can be used by anyone – universities as well as other organisations or companies – on a level playing field.

Nevertheless, the government only decided on the future funding of the new scientific centres and infrastructures just before Christmas. How did that make you feel?
Professionally, it was one of the most dramatic situations I have ever been through. After all, Ceitec of Masaryk University alone has several hundred employees and a budget of almost half a billion crowns – and that is only one part of a consortium that includes three other Brno universities and two research institutes. And until very recently, the future of the whole conglomerate was very much unknown. Such carelessness on the part of the government is reprehensible, also because this incident has damaged the trust in the reliability of funding for Czech science abroad.

Besides funding, another topic often discussed in relation to Czech science is the less-than-perfect system of evaluating academics’ research output. Does that have an impact on the research done at Ceitec as well?
Czech science needs more monetary investment. Moreover, the money that is invested into science is not distributed efficiently. Although there are efforts to support high-quality research, all too often they only exist on paper. We are a small country and we cannot afford to finance all the existing scientific disciplines. High-quality science has to receive more funding. As Ceitec receives most of its funding from EU funds and other external sources and does not depend solely on Czech institutional funding, we can truly focus on quality. And if the funding in the Czech Republic becomes focused on high-quality research, it will be very good news for our institute and its future prospects.

Your research groups undergo international evaluation and the final scores of some of them were not very good last year. Do these results have an impact on their future?
During the five-year existence of the institute, a number of research groups have been disbanded (about 15 to 20 per cent of the total number). On the other hand, new research groups have also been established. The reason for that is that to keep our focus on quality, we need to change constantly because science keeps changing as well. While the changes cannot be very dramatic, the research groups are going to keep changing in the future.

However, Ceitec is a large institute with multiple locations and you cannot monitor everything. How do you propose to connect the locations with one another?
One of the tools that can certainly help is money. For example, Masaryk University provides financial support to interfaculty projects, and Ceitec will need to do the same. However, as a scientific director I don’t have a budget for that, and so we are looking at other options. For example, we could find platforms that could attract scientists from various fields and are also interesting for the international community. This could be the development of prostheses, which combines medicine and materials science, the study of biosensors or the use of computational methods developed originally for biomacromolecules to design new materials. I believe that we will be able to find several areas like this and create new research teams around them.

Sometimes it feels like a lot of people at the university are working at more or less the same thing, but do not know about each other. Are you going to try and fight these barriers?
We try to prevent this by organising various seminars, such as the newly opened Life Science PI Seminars aimed at improving internal knowledgeability about each other’s work or the established and successful Life Science Seminars Series that opens us to the world. This is one way to find out that a colleague sitting in an office in a different part of the university is working on a similar or attractively complementary research, and I have to say that a number of our foreign employees or those who return to the Czech Republic from abroad are used to this form of internal communication and culture and it is something they are missing here.

Do you have a plan for how to amend that?
It is sometimes strange when scientists complain about a lack of communication, as it is they who must communicate with each other. However, it is my task to help change the institutional culture and make communication an integral part of it. One of the options is what we did in the Ceitec building: besides labs and offices, we also built a lot of small spaces where people can meet over a cup of coffee and chat, and it seems to be working.

Previous experience shows that being a scientific director is a full-time job. You are also the head of a research group, how do you find the time?
Every year, I try to go abroad for two or three weeks and devote all that time to research. Towards the end of the year, I went to the US, to one of our partner laboratories, and I was able to do science almost without interruptions. And thanks to my research group and our regular weekly meetings and thanks to writing academic publications, I manage to stay informed about the field and have the chance to actually work as a researcher.

What is the specific focus of your group?
I am a computational chemist and biochemist, so we try to describe the processes in living organisms using computational methods. At the moment, one of our activities focuses on structural bioinformatics – that is, developing computational tools that would help find important information in the structural databases of biomacromolecules. Today, we are aware of so many 3D models of proteins, nucleic acids, or sugars, that we can use them to find out, for example, what structure is required for a protein to perform a specific biological function.

We also focus on computation glycobiochemistry, which is related to the role of sugars in living systems including the human body. This is because sugars not only serve as a store of energy, but they also have another key role. There is an enormous number of different sugars and one of their tasks is to label proteins or cells in the body. Just like luggage at an airport gets a tag with a code to get to its proper destination, cells or even individual molecules in the body get a sugar label that allows the organism to direct them to a specific biological use.