Scientific societies are no private clubs

19. 05. 2022

Scientific societies are no private clubs, as one might think. Their role is indispensable: they further and develop knowledge, but also comment on social issues. What is their history, purpose, and relationship to the Czech Academy of Sciences? The President of the Council of Scientific Societies, Lubomír Hrouda, and the former President of the Learned Society, Pavel Jungwirth, explained the aim of these organisations and their relationship to the Czech Academy of Sciences in the April issue of the AB / Academic Bulletin e-magazine.

Scientific societies create a space where individuals interested in a particular field – whether academics, university teachers and students, or even amateur enthusiasts – can meet. The Council of Scientific Societies has been an umbrella organisation for scientific societies for more than three decades. It has 28,000 members and brings together 87 societies from the natural sciences, medicine, social sciences, and engineering. The Council of Scientific Societies was established in 1990, but the tradition of experts in particular scientific fields associating dates back much further. As early as 150 years ago, mathematicians and physicists, for instance, and later also astronomers and botanists, were already forming societies in the Czech lands.

The Learned Society is the only specialised society in the Czech Republic that represents natural and social sciences in equal measure. Its mission is to promote free conduct of research and the dissemination of scientific knowledge and was led by Czech scientist Pavel Jungwirth from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS in 2020–2022. Read his interview about looking back on his time at the helm of the Learned Society here or below.


04/2022 (version for browsing)
04/2022 (version for download)



Assoc. Prof. Lubomír Hrouda has been active in the Czech Botanical Society for many years, having joined it in 1965 when he was still a university student. He has headed the Council of Scientific Societies since 2014, defending his mandate in the elections in April 2022. With what vision will he lead it into the next term?

Vědecké společnosti nejsou uzavřené kluby

The Council of Scientific Societies entered its thirtieth year of existence in 2020, and you have been its president since 2014. How has it developed its activities since you’ve been at its helm?

Let us briefly go back in time. The most difficult – but not worst – period the Council (CSS) faced was at the end of 1990, when it was founded. I would therefore like to mention my predecessors, Jaroslav Valenta (act. 1990–2002) and Ivo Hána (act. 2002–2013) – two exceptionally well-educated and kind-hearted gentlemen. Professor Valenta was a biomechanic, a technical profession far removed from my own, but whenever he told me about his research and projects with doctors in Japan and elsewhere on how to restore mobility to damaged human limbs, he evidently felt great satisfaction at the usefulness of the research. Professor Hána was a refined individual, an epidemiologist and immunologist “by trade” who had spent half his life in the tropics, practiced medicine until he was eighty, and was involved with the Council well beyond that.

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At the time, the Council consisted of about fifty scientific societies affiliated with the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences – mainly in the classic fields of natural and social sciences. After being elected president, it was like jumping onto a moving train. The standard was set, which I tried to maintain while improving things and expanding the “CSS family”. Today, there are a few dozen more of us – and no minor league players, either.

Which societies have joined the Council?

I will give examples from fields I am more familiar with. A few years ago, the Czech Society for Ornithology, which has more than six thousand members, joined our ranks. The international cooperation between researchers and amateur birdwatchers can be considered the flagship of its activities. Three years ago, we accepted the Czech Society of Soil Science, which concerns itself with the fascinating substance of soil diversity – a scientific field which isn’t represented by any institute or department of its own at any of the renowned universities – that’s how multidisciplinary it is.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the activities of the Council?

The same way as everyone else. None of us could’ve ever imagined such restriction of contact. The first year was tough. Not all of us knew how to communicate online. For an academic my age, it was initially a nightmare – professionally, too. Fortunately, we all managed in the end, and it was possible to recover the funding for cancelled activities.

When you compare the 2020 and 2021 annual reports, it’s evident that after an initial trial-and-error period, most of the societies were able to “go hybrid” and hold exceptional events. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to experience it again. Despite the results, it still has this air of “extra-terrestrial sterility”. We humans are three-dimensional beings; we belong in the third dimension.

How many societies are affiliated with the Council? What is their aim and purpose?

The Council currently comprises 87 societies. We accepted the last two during our online plenary session in 2021. But to answer your question, I think I'll borrow a section from our annual report. The societies take on the role of field-unifying platforms. For most fields, they comprise institutions that bring together experts from universities, the Academy, departmental research institutes, and students at all levels. Many are interdisciplinary in nature; some scientific fields are not represented by academic or other research institutions. Others connect the community of experts with international research organisations.

How can a scientific society join the CSS “family”?

I’ve already spoken about the “core” of societies that joined us in 1990–1991. Until then, they were under the jurisdiction of the Committee for the Organisation of Scientific Societies (KOVS) at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. These societies have been here for decades, and quite a few have already celebrated their centenary. But every year, additional ones show interest in joining. The admission of new societies is overseen exclusively by the highest body of the Council – the plenary session. In order to maintain our standard, the executive board adopted a set of assessment criteria in 2009.


How does the Council benefit its affiliated societies?

The Council functions as a “gearshift” between the Czech Academy of Sciences and societies – especially regarding grant policy. It also serves as a platform for mutual communication. The Council is represented by an elected executive board consisting equally of delegates from the fields of natural and social sciences. The societies elect the board at the plenary session – more popularly known as the “general assembly”.


At the end of April 2022, you were successfully re-elected to the executive board. What is your vision for where you want to lead the Council in the coming period?

After thirty years, the Council has essentially become an autonomous, established entity with transparent relationships with both the Czech Academy of Sciences, especially its Academy Council, and all the societies. The word “vision” may evoke the intention to do one’s work even better than has been done so far. I may surprise you: my wish is for everything to keep working as well as it has until now.

What exactly do you mean by that?

Scientific societies are neither a research institute, whose job description includes striving to be the best, nor a university, which logically wants as many of its graduates as possible to attain important positions around the world. Societies comprise a sort of intermediary, often functioning at an international level, that brings together people who are passionate about something in their respective fields, where cooperation is not based on hierarchy, and where everyone is happy to learn from each other. I grew up in Czechoslovakia during the normalization era, working at the Academy as part of a more or less individualised collective, and I felt like there was something missing. It was after the Velvet Revolution that I suddenly realised what it was, as I began to work at the university.

My mother used to say, “Make yourself useful through your work”. This has been my driving force ever since. I think that by now I know a little bit about the workings of the Council and scientific societies and, of course, science and education. Undoubtedly, there are better researchers and better teachers. I’d say our “social bubble” has three main passions: science, teaching, popularisation. Like I said, scientific societies are a kind of “intersection” of these activities. And to retain the quality of this intersection, friendship, and mutual respect, because without them, nothing can be done properly – that is my “useful” vision...

Read the interview with Associate Professor Lubomír Hrouda in its entirety here.


Successful Czech scientist Prof. Pavel Jungwirth from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS has been in charge of the Learned Society (LS) for the past two years. While his presidency was affected by the pandemic, he still managed to open the doors of this organisation to the public. In his view, the Learned Society should, first and foremost, play the role of an authoritative figure that can initiate social debates without itself claiming what is right or wrong.

How does Pavel Jungwirth assess his time in this top position within the LS? Which direction should the LS be heading and how would he describe the relationship between the LS and the Czech Academy of Sciences? With his presidency ending in May, he looks back and evaluates his time there.

2020-07-24_Pavel Jungwirth-25

You are a renowned Czech scientist. How does a successful physical chemist become President of the Learned Society? Was it a long journey to get there?

To become president, you must first be a member. And it helps if you’ve also been active in the society for some time. The LS is supposed to represent eminent scientists, so a successful scientific career as such is definitely taken into consideration. I’ve been a member since 2009, President since 2020. I’ve always tried to push it a little further. But you can’t drive a car from the backseat. That’s why I decided a couple of years ago to run for president and try to become a driver, figuratively speaking.


In the A / Věda a výzkum magazine, you revealed that you are a “constant showman”. How does this attitude manifest in an environment associated with serious and conservative scientific values? Or do you not necessarily perceive the Learned Society as such?

My style is to talk about serious matters in a lighter manner. Of course, I take the LS very seriously, but I don’t want it to come across that way. However, you’re definitely onto something. The LS used to be a bit of a private gentlemen’s club. In principle, there was nothing wrong with that. However, one point on my agenda as President was to open our doors to the public and publicise our activities more – and in that respect, a certain element of showmanship is a must. The public doesn’t care if we show them how serious we are and how well we understand everything.

Apart from popularisation, what has been your aim in your role as president?

Popularisation was definitely the most important thing – to offer lectures, panel discussions, to be more in touch with the public. Our intention is to create a space for stimulating debate and to keep it within boundaries of rationality, which I think we’re capable of – though it can be difficult at times. I believe that these imaginary boundaries are encompassing enough to allow for other interesting opinions that may not be in line with my personal views. In my role as president, I am now also very much involved in the inner life of the LS, which I used to put on the back burner a bit. I’ve been catching up in recent months.


What is the relationship of the Learned Society to the Academy?

We aren’t a society under the Academy, and we don’t belong to any of its research institutes. On the other hand, the Academy takes care of us like a mother figure. We are like the aforementioned “gardening club” – we run largely on membership dues and funding from the Academy. Of course, we also have other sponsors, but we receive about two million crowns a year from the Academy, which is not insignificant. Moreover, the Academy allows us to meet on its premises and borrow equipment, which is priceless help.

I really see it as this kind mother figure who doesn’t really interfere with what we do. It’s an ideal parenting relationship. Although “she” cares for us, she doesn’t see us as a “daughter company”, which is important. We need to be able to extend our activities in various directions: be it universities or other research institutions. I think that our coexistence is set up in a great way, and all the Presidents of the Academy, past and current, deserve our thanks.

How can a researcher become a member of the Learned Society? Do they have to be a certain age, have a certain reputation?

Incoming members are elected by the existing members. Ideally, we shouldn’t have distinguished researchers or science popularisers running around our streets who aren’t LS members. There’s no age limit, but members are usually older with few young people – I think the youngest one is forty. The oldest member was astronomer Luboš Perek, who died last year at the age of 101. He celebrated his centenary with us still in full force. I’m trying to rejuvenate the Learned Society a bit. It’s amazing, actually: this is the last society where I can still feel young at fifty-six. But it must be said that the spirit of the LS is changing. The people who founded it in 1994 are gradually leaving – and with them a kind of founding ethos is disappearing. I believe now is the right time for a younger generation to step in to ensure the future of the LS in the long run. That was also one of my aims – for the society to achieve a certain “self-rejuvenating” ability, to shake things up a bit.

Have you succeeded?

To a certain extent. For a long time, my presidency took on the form of crisis management. I took office during a pandemic and for a while it looked like all activity would be suspended. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. We went partially digital and managed to organise many public debates and lectures. Readers can watch them on our YouTube channel (Czech only). Now there’s a comeback of larger events, too. After our plenary assembly in May, for instance, we’re holding a symposium on the future of energy. In addition, we’ve managed to expand beyond our little Czech pond. For example, we’ve established contact with the Academy of Science and Literature in Mainz, Germany, with experts there helping us prepare the symposium which is, of course, open to the public, so anyone interested in the topic of energy is welcome to attend. In a sense, the pandemic has helped us make our activities more visible. Many experts from the LS have provided valuable, useful comments on the topic to the media.

Speaking of the media: don’t you think the activities of the LS are a bit neglected in the media?

It may have been so in the past. The LS was rather closed off in that respect. Today we are active on social media and we cooperate with the media. This is primarily thanks to Ondřej Vrtiška, our PR guy and the editor-in-chief of the Vesmír magazine. In addition, we have our, I’d say, principal moderator, Kateřina Poláková from the science editorial staff of Czech Television, who is the face of our debates. The LS thus garners personalities that the audience can then associate with it. But we don’t want to be on TV just for the popularity. If we make things engaging enough, the media will come to us.


In less than two years, in 2024, the Learned Society will celebrate its thirtieth birthday. How do you see its future?

In a positive light. I think we’re off to a good start – we’re gradually moving from a private gentleman’s club to an open society. For my part, I’d like to see the LS rejuvenated over time, while also expanding its interdisciplinarity even further. After all, that’s what it’s here for – a space where people can meet, collaborate, and exchange ideas from all fields of knowledge. We should try to make the LS more visible, too, because I believe our activities are worth sharing with the public.

In terms of our broader activities, some time ago we joined a global agenda of learned societies to spread the idea of humanist democracy and advocate rationality, truth, and human rights through concrete activities. For example, through our joint efforts, we succeeded in getting several Iranian researchers out of prison. We’ve also sent a substantial amount of money to help Ukraine, which garnered a good response. We should continue in this direction. I’ll be happy if we continue to play our role in society and provide a space for stimulating debate. In other words, if the Learned Society will be a sort of beacon of rationality, science, and free discussion, I’ll be satisfied. Who better to lead by example?

Read the interview with Professor Pavel Jungwirth in its entirety here.


04/2022 (version for browsing)
04/2022 (version for download)

Prepared by: Luděk Svoboda & Jan Hanáček, Division of External Relations, CAO of the CAS
Photo: Jana Plavec, Division of External Relations, CAO of the CAS

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

The Czech Academy of Sciences (the CAS)

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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.

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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.

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