Conference: Academic culture is a key enabler of quality science

On 12 June 2024, the “Through Academic Culture to Scientific Excellence” conference in Prague concluded a project supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to improve academic culture in the Czech Republic. The event brought together personalities who are key to the development of a healthy academic environment in the Czech Republic. Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council (ERC), visited the Czech Republic for the first time upon an invitation from Czexpats in Science. High profile representatives of the Czech scientific community, government and research institutions also addressed the event.

“The first conference on academic culture has just concluded. We would be happy if its message became a cornerstone for further efforts to improve the Czech academic environment.” These words by Vladimíra Petráková, co-founder of Czexpats in Science, concluded the conference, which took place on 12 June 2024 in Prague. She summed up the sentiment that was evident throughout the event: healthy academic culture is essential for quality research and requires continuous effort.

Michal H. Kolář and the audience

From the very start of the conference, it was clear from the presentations and keynote speeches that cultivating a healthy academic culture should not be the responsibility of researchers alone, but also requires the active participation of leaders at both institution and state level. Michal H. Kolář, organizer of the conference and PI of the concluding SharingCzexpats project, Matouš Glanc, Director of Czexpats in Science, Milena Králíčková, President of the Czech Rectors Conference, and Pavel Doleček, Deputy Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, all delivered opening remarks. “Without discussing academic culture, we cannot do quality science,” said Doleček.

Pavel Doleček and the audience

During the first keynote lecture, Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council (ERC), outlined the role that grant providers and the science funding system play in setting a healthy research environment. The occasion was the first time that Leptin spoke publicly in the Czech Republic, having accepted an invitation from Czexpats in Science. She stressed that “scientists need, above all, trust and freedom without unnecessary administrative burdens.” Freedom leads to courage to try new things. Trust then allows for long-term focused work, without fear of lack of funding and the need for more and more grant applications. These conditions are a prerequisite for honest research, which is the cornerstone of a healthy academic culture. 

“While a competitive environment is important, scientists need realistic prospects for a stable and successful career. Without this, sooner or later they will decide to take a different career path,” Leptin noted, stressing that the lack of security affects women in particular.

Maria Leptin

Biologist Kateřina Rohlenová, an ERC Starting Grant holder, suggested that supportive funders are not enough on their own. In her opinion, it is all about what happens within research groups. She summarised a healthy academic culture in three words: diversity, openness and respect. “It’s up to all of us to think about how we can promote these principles around us.” She also reminded the audience that research institutions are not just about the researchers. “It seems to me that we often forget that institutions are not only about scientists, but also about administrative staff,” added Rohlenová, who also highlighted the role of international cooperation: “There is no such thing as Czech science. We need open international cooperation and people who are not afraid to constantly expand their horizons and inspire others to do the same.” 

Kateřina Rohlenová

It was the closed nature of Czech institutions towards scholars from abroad that the British art historian Matthew Rampley, who moved from the University of Birmingham to Masaryk University in Brno after Brexit, alluded to in his lecture. “Many important institutional decisions are made in Czech behind closed doors. Those who do not speak Czech and are not invited simply have to accept the outcome. A real sign of a positive change for the better would be the appointment of a candidate who does not speak Czech to one of the university’s senior positions.” He identified inbreeding (the pernicious tendency to stay at one institution from university education to professorship) and the untouchability of professors as one of the main causes of these problems. Having come from the UK, where students commonly address lecturers by their first names, he found the customary “Mr. Professor” at Czech universities a great surprise. 

Matthew Rampley

During lunch, conference participants had the opportunity to network and discuss the topic further, as well as share their own experiences. This was followed nicely by an afternoon panel discussion, the culmination of the open atmosphere that prevailed throughout the conference. There were engaged questions from the audience all day, illustrating that there is a great deal of interest in the issue within the scientific community, but also a great desire and willingness to positively influence the environment around them. The panel discussion was moderated by Michal H. Kolář, principal investigator of the three-year project, funded by the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, to improve academic culture at Czech institutions, which culminated with the conference. “Academic culture can only be improved from below, but without the support of institutional leadership, it will not work,” evolutionary biologist Pavel Tomančák from the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology in Dresden and scientific director of the CEITEC consortium in Brno outlined the necessary breadth of cooperation. Researcher in politics, Petra Guasti, who is a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University and also a PI in the National Institute for Research on the Socioeconomic Impact of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI), added that “cultivating an academic culture is everyone’s responsibility, but especially of those who hold the most power at institutions.”

Pavel Tomančák

Kateřina Chládková, research group leader at the Institute of Psychology of the CAS, described the doctoral training period as the crucial moment in a researcher’s career. The experience from this stage is a starting point for researchers for their upcoming careers, and the quality of doctoral education will ultimately influence the whole system. “Supporting healthy conflict resolution with the supervisor is absolutely crucial. That is still very much lacking in our country today.” 

Petra Guasti and Kateřina Chládková

In conclusion, let us return to the aforementioned address by Vladimíra Petráková, who expressed hope that the conference would become a cornerstone for further efforts to improve the Czech academic environment. Let’s try to think about how we, each and every individual scientist, can positively influence the academic culture around us. And if we are in leadership positions, whether of a scientific group or of an entire institution, let’s listen to the people around us and reflect on how we can change the culture of the entire organisations in the right direction.

Vladimíra Petráková

More about the conference

Foto: Jan Havlík