Petr Baldrian: The Czech Science Foundation (GACR) has come a long way

08. 12. 2023

The Czech Science Foundation (Grantová agentura ČR) is our most important institution that provides earmarked public funding for basic research. In its 30 years of existence, it has supported over 20,000 projects and allocated more than CZK 71 billion. Since November 2021, it has been headed by Petr Baldrian, a researcher affiliated with the Institute of Microbiology of the CAS. Does the Foundation have sufficient support from the Czech state in times of austerity measures? What sort of innovations is it planning?

When the Research, Development and Innovation Council (R&D Council) met with its International Advisory Body on 6 October 2023, one of the main items on the agenda were recommendations concerning one of our most important agencies that provides earmarked support for basic research. “The Czech Science Foundation [GACR] was one of the first agencies we looked at to see how they operate. We believe that, in what it does, it is the best in our country,” noted Josef Michl, Chair of the International Advisory Body of the R&D Council.

“We realize that science is a global issue. We therefore appreciate the fact that colleagues from abroad are willingly sharing their experience with us,” said Jiří Homola, First Vice-Chair of the R&D Council and member of the Academy Council of the CAS. As he further stressed, the Czech Science Foundation and the Czech Academy of Sciences have always been close to each other – and not only because the Czech Science Foundation had long had its base at the CAS headquarters on Národní Street. “GACR is constantly improving, even as evaluated by independent experts. Its progress is also significantly helping the advancement of research at our institutes – forty percent of the projects GACR supported last year had its principal investigators hailing from the Czech Academy of Sciences,” Homola added.

But the Czech Science Foundation is not “resting on its laurels” and instead is introducing innovations to improve its operations and help advance science in the Czech Republic. For instance, it is creating conditions that should allow researchers to better combine their careers with their family life. GACR projects offers support to early-career researchers as well as experienced researchers, and newly require institutions receiving funding to report back with a gender equality plan. “We are pleased that a large number of our proposals have been accepted by the leadership of GACR and are being treated as a positive,” added Josef Jiřičný, another member of the R&D Council advisory body.

As Petr Baldrian, President of the Czech Science Foundation, explains in the following interview, the international advisory body provides feedback to GACR on a regular basis. “We are glad for it. It is helpful when experts from abroad take an unbiased look at how we work.”

Petr Baldrian
Petr Baldrian, President of the Czech Science Foundation.

Which specific recommendations on how earmarked funding is done did the meeting give rise to?

In October, we mainly discussed the progress GACR had made in the areas that the international advisory body had recommended in the past. These included internationalisation, supporting the emerging generation of researchers, reducing red tape, and moving towards a method of evaluating research on the basis of quality rather than quantity. According to the advisory body, we have made significant progress. However, there are still certain limitations to consider. For instance, the possibility of informing applicants who have failed the first round of evaluation would require a change in legislation.

The Czech Science Foundation is celebrating thirty years of existence in 2023. How has it developed over those three decades?

If we look at GACR today and thirty years ago, we could say that they’re two different institutions: from a “mere” grant provider, it has become a modern agency, which is digitised and many of its activities are being handled by a sophisticated information system, and which is introducing global trends into Czech science. At its core, however, GACR remains what it was thirty years ago – an institution where the best basic research projects are selected for support through a process of rigorous peer review by researchers.

In which way has GACR advanced the most in recent years?

We have come a long way. In recent years, we have significantly expanded our international cooperation endeavours. We stood at the genesis of Weave, a European initiative that brings together European basic research funding agencies and allows them to fund joint projects. What’s new is that researchers from up to three countries can join forces. We are also proud of our collaboration with the National Science Foundation government agency of the United States. Our achievements also include having launched open calls to promote excellence in basic research – EXPRO and JUNIOR STAR grants. These are evaluated exclusively by international panels. We joined CoARA, the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment, and introduced work-life balance measures. We are pleased that we have also managed to increase flexibility of supported project implementations in regard to the use of funds, for example, or by allowing for extended closeout due to parenthood.

What should be the ratio between institutional and earmarked funding?

Both are important in research and both complement each other. Institutional funding offers stability for research institutes and ensures their continuity. Grant funding, or so-called earmarked funding, enables the support of innovative ideas that stand out from the rest and for which institutional funding is not usually used, and thus acts as an incentive. It also provides a significant means of investment – equipment acquired with the grant funds is typically used by researchers after the grant project has been closed out. Another advantage of earmarked funding is that it does not matter what department you are in or whether you have a good relationship with your supervisor. Your proposal is subjected to an objective assessment by means of an independent evaluation process. And setting the ratio to institutional funding aside, it is clear that even earmarked funds going into science should be growing faster than inflation.

Do you feel GACR is sufficiently supported by the state?

We understand that the current state budget situation is complicated. We are thus trying to make the most efficient use of the resources we have and do as much as possible with them. We feel supported by the government and we believe that earmarked funding for basic research will be increased as soon as the economic situation allows it.

Which trends would you like to apply to the activities of GACR?

The aforementioned CoARA research assessment reform seeks to move the assessment of the quality of science away from simple bibliometric indicators, i.e., from tallying a researcher’s number of publications, to ensuring that the research is actually contributing to the advancement of knowledge, understanding, or solution of an issue. We have been committed to quality being a basic evaluation criterion even before joining the initiative. However, we need to deepen and expand this trend. One study in an acclaimed journal is worth more than a dozen mediocre publications elsewhere. Open science is also a hot topic nowadays. Scientific data should be openly accessible to all. We are also addressing research ethics, exploring the possibilities of ORCID involvement, and newly supporting researchers in popularising their projects in order to foster more active communication of their research to the public. And this is but a selection of the many trends to implement.

Are you planning any new grant incentives or changes to existing ones?

In the past, we’ve introduced the highly selective EXPRO and JUNIOR STAR grants, which have proven to be successful. We are expanding international cooperation endeavours in the long term. Additionally, we are intensively developing so-called re-entry grants for parents returning from parental leave or similar career breaks. These should enable them to restart their scientific careers. We are also looking at how to support the translation of the results generated by our basic research projects into practice.

With its less than 28% of female researchers, the Czech Republic is at the tail end of the European Union in terms of the proportion and representation of women in science. From 2023, GACR has imposed the obligation to report a gender equality plan as one of the criteria for participation in grant calls. What has been your experience with this so far? For example, have you registered a decrease in applications?

We cannot complain about a decline in applications. In the long term, their number is still high. At the beginning, we had to clarify a misunderstanding as to whether gender equality plans should be included in the project proposal itself, but I believe this was quickly cleared up – all that’s required is providing a link to the relevant institution’s website, as hopefully, they all already have these plans implemented. I believe that the proportion of female researchers will gradually increase and that the flexible options we offer to combine proposed projects with family care and the re-entry projects mentioned above will contribute to this in the future.

You have headed GACR for two years now. What has been the most powerful moment for you during this time?

Probably like most people, we felt strongly about the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February. Immediately, at all management levels, from supporting staff to the GACR board, we began to think about how we could help the invaded country, its people, and especially its researchers. For example, we supported the flexible involvement of Ukrainians in existing projects, and we also joined an initiative of science and research institutions.

What advice would you give to researchers from the Czech Academy of Sciences in relation to applying for grants?

This applies to all researchers alike: don’t give up. Only a small number of applicants are successful in each round of the evaluation process. This is as true in the Czech Republic as it is abroad – many European agencies have a funding rate of less than 15%. See every grant application that is not supported as an opportunity to improve your proposal for the next time. It is essential to take the evaluators’ feedback given to all projects seriously to improve the project in question for the next open call. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to give up on an idea and try to find a more promising (and sustainable) one, or to support your vision by obtaining preliminary results that indicate that the proposed solution has a high chance of success. This, too, is a principle science is based on.

Prepared by: Luděk Svoboda, Zuzana Dupalová, External Relations Division, CAO of the CAS
Translated by: Tereza Novická, External Relations Division, CAO of the CAS
Photo: Pavlína Jáchimová, External Relations Division, CAO of the CAS

Licence Creative Commons The text and photographs are released for use under the Creative Commons license.

The Czech Academy of Sciences (the CAS)

The mission of the CAS

The primary mission of the CAS is to conduct research in a broad spectrum of natural, technical and social sciences as well as humanities. This research aims to advance progress of scientific knowledge at the international level, considering, however, the specific needs of the Czech society and the national culture.

President of the CAS

Prof. Eva Zažímalová has started her second term of office in May 2021. She is a respected scientist, and a Professor of Plant Anatomy and Physiology.

She is also a part of GCSA of the EU.