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Why research at Czech institutions sucks

Yesterday, a Czech expert in spintronics and nanoelectronics Mr Tomáš Jungwirth has provoked some naive Czech patriots who think that their homeland is very good in things like science:

Researcher: Czech science is average, wins few ERC grants (Prague Monitor, widely discussed in Czech press)
Jungwirth is a member of the European Research Council. Well, I think that I was still a high school student when I was pretty much decided that the Czech contributions to science in general and physics in particular are pretty much negligible. In fact, before I came to the college, I was already worried whether there could be someone in our homeland who could teach me/us things needed for the cutting-edge physics etc.

Just to be sure, the Czech education bringing you up to the early 1970s or so is very good, I still think. But at the research level, the numbers speak clearly:
Researchers from other EU countries submit two or three times more applications for ERC grants than those from the Czech Republic, Jungwirth said. Moreover, 12 percent of the grant applications are successful on average, while Czech projects succeed only in 5 percent of cases. Czech projects have won ERC 25 grants worth 41 million euros since 2007, while Austrian and Hungarian projects have won 189 and 54 grants, respectively.
Austrian and Hungary - totally comparable countries – have won 7.6 and 2.2 times more grants than Czechia, respectively. The deviation of these numbers from 1 obviously cannot be considered noise and – despite the EU's numerous fundamental shortcomings – I don't think that it's an effort of the evil EU organs to hurt Czechia, either.

Nevertheless, many Czechs believe that the research done at the Czech institutions is one of good quality. Now, you may find some Czechs who have done OK or good research abroad, let's not get obsessed with examples. But what about the Czech institutions? We used to be good with foreign brains – well, especially when Rudolph II was the holy Roman emperor (1575-1612). Rudolph moved the Habsburg capital from Vienna to Prague in 1583 and the capital stayed there through 1611 (it was also the capital between 1355 and 1437).

Under Rudolph II, Prague was a genuine European hub of arts and sciences. In physics, we are aware of this fact especially because of the contributions by Johannes Kepler (a German) and Tycho Brahe (a Dane) that were largely made in Prague and at nearby observatories etc. We may also notice that Rudolph II wasn't a full-blown Czech, you know, so full-blown Czechs according to the Czechs' prevailing definition of Czechs shouldn't be praised for the intellectual prosperity of the city in that era.

There are various reasons why the results are so bad but a concise summary seems appropriate here:
Czech scientific institutions are not open, they lack external experts and top researchers from abroad and their managements do not answer for the results to any superior body,
Jungwirth said. Very true. Well, there are some promising exceptions. These days, it's unavoidable that most of the relevant scientific groups in the world are "global" which also means that they can speak English and they have to speak English most of the time. English is still rather unusual in the Czech research groups. A fact that is softly related – both a partial reason and a partial consequence – is that the number of foreign researchers is very low.

Well, the number isn't low only because of the language barrier – a negative side effect of our otherwise wonderful national revival 200 years ago. People just don't want to compete with foreigners. Well, it's probably true in other countries as well that most people would prefer not to compete for the jobs with foreigners. But there's an additional problem in Czechia that actually causes the problems: They are allowed not to compete. They are not really accountable for their poor results – the research institutes' management is "too independent", in this sense.

On top of that, people are encouraged to say lots of inaccurate or quite weird things. For example, Jungwirth sounded "critical" but even the main quote attributed to him is:
Czech science is average.
Is it? You know, when 12% of the grant applications are successful in the EU, then 12% is the average figure. And because the Czech applicants have the 5% success rate, they are obviously not average. They are below the average or subpar. This statement boils down to rudimentary number theory again: twelve is greater than five.

You know what's going on here, don't you? The phrase
Someone is average
is used as a euphemism for
Someone isn't at the top.
But an unpleasant fact is that these two sentences aren't equivalent. And most people who aren't at the top are below the average, and that subgroup below the average includes most of the researchers at Czech institutions, too.

Czechs are often brainwashed into thinking that the Czech research is and has been important. I think that this statement has never been right, especially not in truly theoretical or pure science. We are often told about roughly ten great Czech inventions such as
  • Contact lens: Otto Wichterle
  • Electric tram: František Křižík
  • Oldest car: Leopold Sviták
  • Swing plough: Veverka (=squirrel) cousins
  • Ship's propeller: Josef František Ressel
  • Lightning rod: Prokop Diviš
  • Sugar cube: a Swiss guy in Dačice
  • The word "robot": Čapek brothers
  • Semtex: terrorists' favorite explosive
  • Checo: a very practical way to produce pervitin
I have used bold face to indicate that it's questionable whether we should be proud about the last two. ;-) One could add a few more comparable inventions and some famous products that weren't "quite" inventions anymore. Even in some examples above, the Czechs weren't "quite" the undisputed first inventors.

But pure science? That would be way weaker. Maybe some mathematicians could be mentioned as the best counterexamples - e.g. the father of the Čech cohomology. Some "more modern" counterparts of Kepler and Brahe could be found as well – e.g. our Germans such as Gregor Mendel. Or Einstein who taught in Prague for a year and realized the importance of the equivalence principle in Prague. But those aren't examples of a good science management run by Czechs.

It's not just a bad heritage of communism. I've read some history of the folks who were famous as physicists in Prague of the 19th century. One of them was writing rants against James Clerk Maxwell and his "ludicrous" theories. He was a genuine counterpart of the likes of Peter Woit – an aggressive know-nothing and a zero that just tries to make the life harder for the giants. When it comes to the people claiming to be researchers, we've had some really, really bad stuff that could only dream about becoming average.

Because it has become so normal to hire and pay people and groups without any demonstrable results or successes, the people who are actually competitive at some global level are extremely rare and they can easily become gurus at the Czech institutions for long decades – even though they have often lost any contact with the cutting edge and even their results decades ago weren't really remarkable but at most average at the global scale.

What I have written above may be enough to understand the toxic mix. In some sense, the Czech nation does have some respect towards science although it is not really interested in science. So it's ready to fund science without conditions and accountability. But the funding isn't super-generous – science is just a relatively safe way to get a near-average salary. The poor results show what you can get if you fund a whole industry without conditions and accountability. You simply shouldn't do that.

Mediocrity, silence, and lack of creativity have become the ideal. Needless to say, brilliant young people see that the worshiping of the subpar old national "leaders of science" and "aging" are the two most preferred types of work for their upward mobility. Most of them don't like this offer and they either avoid science or try to move abroad.

How can it be fixed? Well, I actually think that the rules that work have been mostly discovered and it would be desirable to think how to adopt them and how to become at least average, indeed, because that would be a huge improvement.

I am sure that a vast majority of the TRF readers isn't interested in similar issues in Czechia but I still believe that some of the ideas and mechanisms are relevant outside the stinky Czech pond (=the Czech basin or crater), too.

Completely off-topic:
Make your Justin Bieber in one day

There seem to be disciplines in which Czechs are arguably better. The professional Internet prankster Kazma – see previous blog posts – is earning millions of crowns and holy cow, I think he deserves it.

This time, he and his staff created a fake Justin Bieber:
A new episode full of unbelievable turnarounds ended with a lawsuit from Justin Bieber (a video in Czech)
In November, Bieber had his first concert in Prague – and the media reported that he was good but too cold. He didn't even greet Prague. Well, the video above probably explains why.

Kazma organized a casting to pick a boy who plays Bieber's song on his guitar at home. Among hundreds or so candidates, they picked the one who looked like Justin Bieber, a guy in Ostrava who never played in public. They moved him to the Prague Dinopark (a Jurassic Park with models of dinosaurs, we have one in Pilsen, too) which is located next to the huge O2 Arena, a big hall for ice-hockey and concerts. (See Street View.)

Kazma corrupted a hairdresser, some stylists, and they made him behave like Justin Bieber. But the poor guy didn't even know. On the roof of the Dinopark rented by Kazma, they installed the ordinary guy from Ostrava and he was playing Bieber's well-known "you should go and f*ck yourself" 2015 song. The fans – over a thousand of girls – were driven absolutely insane. The cell phones were running at full steam and they were yelling etc. No one can distinguish similar faces from 18 meters so it worked.

The unknown guy from Ostrava became an instant celebrity. Kazma also wanted his fake Bieber to meet the real one. So they borrowed identical cars as in Bieber's convoy, studied the routes he would take to the arena (such people don't go through the VIP entrance but the technical entrance), and they got in. A tense encounter took place in the garage – some bones were broken by the American bodyguards, it seems.

This job was mostly done by Kazma's staff. Meanwhile, he was securing funding. Celebrities like Bieber normally rent several fancy hotels at once, to discourage journalists and fans from reserving the same hotels. The decision about the hotel is only done in the last minute. Could Kazma et al. be close to Bieber, anyway? Yes: They used the same strategy as the celebrities. So they hired rooms in several hotels and when it was known which one was picked, they used the reservation.

They had a second fake Justin Bieber there and told everybody – all the journalists – that it was just a prank. The fans were driven insane again, anyway. The journalists could have thought that by knowing that it was a prank, they prevented further cool evolution of the prank. But this assumption was absolutely wrong. The truthfulness was actually a key to an even bigger prank that secured much of the funding for the whole prank. What happened?

Well, they indeed had a fake Justin Bieber but the real one came there, too. And a fan pantsed him. Because the normal journalists were convinced that there's nothing interesting to see – just a fake Bieber – they didn't record it. So Kazma was the only one who had the video of a pantsed Justin Bieber and they sold it to TMZ, an Internet TV, for $25,000. From there, it spread to many similar video providers in the world. I didn't actually understand whether it was a real or fake Bieber who was pantsed and I am not sure whether I care about this detail too much. ;-)

Also, I am not sure whether $25,000 was enough to cover all the expenses but their ability to (partly?) fund themselves in this way is amazing.

Kazma is a borderline criminal but an amazing one, especially if his version of the events is true – which I can never be quite sure about.

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