Innovation ambassador: US reaping benefits of Europe’s R&D spending


Europe is failing to capitalise on its investment in education and science because bright young researchers still see the US as the best place to further their career, according to Czech scientist Blanka ?íhová, ambassador of the 2009 European Year of Creativity and Innovation.

Blanka ?íhová is an ambassador of the 2009 European Year of Creativity & Innovation. She was speaking to Jan Vitasek of EURACTIV Czech Republic.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

Europe is lagging behind its global competitors in the innovation stakes. In your view, what must be done to make Europe more progressive?

I can talk only of the professions I know and those are science and education. I think the problem of Europe lies in a strange inability to take advantage of educated people and the creativity of young people. Europe educates good university students and PhD students. These students study how to work in science, they are in close contact with new ideas and also with modern ways of solving scientific problems. 

It costs a lot of money but when we need to take advantage of these people, Europe starts to economise. The students miss out on opportunities to assert themselves. There are not enough opportunities or money for them. That's why they leave. And the number one country they leave for is still the US. 

Working in the US is a great opportunity for young scientists, not only because it enhances their CVs, but because in American universities you can find the perfect competitive environment. Many top university graduate students from both Europe and Asia are interested in working there. They are young and full of ambitions and they want to succeed. This way, the US gets young people who are well prepared without investing a single dolar in their education. 

In Europe we are not as mobile because moving from country to country brings with it many problems and complications. This is not a problem in the US where people move to places where the work is interesting and well-paid. Europe needs more flexibility, more cooperation. 

The European funding system is part of the problem – EU funds are a bit clumsy and laden with bureaucracy. The main task for politicians is to give students the chance to fulfill their potential. They have to guarantee mobility for educated people who are able to spread their knowledge into all areas of human activities – business, culture, technical development, and possibly also politics. 

How could educational systems help Europe to become more innovative?

Society should emphasize lifelong and professional education. In this respect Europe could follow an Asian example where education and support of an educational system has become a public priority. The amounts of money spent by national and local governments on education are many times higher than other expenditures. 

This trend, which has been in place for many years, has already begun to show results. It is not an issue for one government, for one electoral term. It is impossible to take a sheet of paper and a pencil and calculate the return on investment in education. 

Education, including pre-school, should be high-quality. The generation which is being educated should become better than its teachers, substantially better. It also shows that teaching cannot be done only by people who like educating children, who can afford it, or who cannot find any other job. 

It is shocking, if we believe the media, that our children are sometimes taught by unskilled teachers. I see a solution in leveling out the quality of schools (and even universities) nationally. We need qualified and good professionals at all levels, starting with nursery schools, and these qualified teachers' work should be properly evaluated. By leveling the quality of schools, demand for teaching jobs would rise and schools could become more selective when hiring. 

What is the role of creativity in science and research? Is it possible to succeed in these fields without having creative thinking?

No, it is not. Creativity is a key for successful research. But there are other crucial factors. It is important to have a combination of curiosity, intuition, talent, certain kinds of courage or even impudence, humility and a balanced mix of patience and impatience. You also need to be willing to think about the problem 24 hours a day, and to ask yourself all the possible questions, even those which look improbable or unanswerable. 

Above that all, you must be, at least in my fields of research [microbiology and immunology], clever with your hands. These skills should be ideally based on a tradition – in a similar way to those of excellent bell founders, violin-makers, glassmakers, shoemakers, etc. 

Creativity seems to be one of the basic building blocks both in science and art. Is it the same kind of creativity or is there any difference between creativity of a scientist and of an artist?

No, there is not. It is not by chance that I compare science to art and art to science for a long time. They are very close. You must have talent for doing either science or art. If you don't, it is hard work which does not bring you satisfaction. You have to do research with determination, otherwise it affects the result. 

It is impossible just to do research from 8am to 4pm. It is inside you and it is there all the time. Excellent art has no vacation – it lives with you 24 hours a day. And excellent science has no vacation either. A top scientist lives for his experiments and discoveries. He or she keeps thinking about why there is such a result and how to explain it, and sometimes, usually when you least expect it, the explanation comes to his or her mind. The successful scientist is, as well as successful artists, permanently overworked. 

How would you persuade young people to start considering their future career as scientists? What should be changed to make this kind of career attractive for young people?

It is important to try looking for gifted people in kindergartens and to treat extraordinary talents in an extraordinary way. There should be as many possibilities to develop abilities and skills as possible. But be warned! It can also happen that a child who is a big talent at six years of age is just an average one at 13. Even in this respect there is a similarity with art. 

Young people in high schools deserve special attention. Already at this level, we can see plenty of gifted students. But the charm of science should come to children not only through their schools and teachers.

 Television and other media play a vital role. After seeing some movies, girls dream of becoming a singer or an actress, boys of being heroes or successful crime-fighters. Who dreams of a scientist career? Yet, science is a detective story! Every day it brings something new and unexpected. And what's more, if the science is practised properly it brings excitement and fulfillment. But science needs popularization, popularization and again popularization. 

It reminds me of what was once said by the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA. It happened in 1953. Two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, both just 25 years of age at the time, wrote a book you could read like a detective story. They described how they had been surprised that their scientific life had become richer with social events. 

Young candidates, who picture scientists as killjoys and impractical individuals who just work and do not know anything about normal life, should know that their notion is 99% wrong. In fact, scientists have very often some artistic hobbies or are excellent sportsmen. 

But I have to add that even the most talented scientist is sometimes forced to leave his job for financial reasons. Let me be clear, I do not want to say that scientists should have an extraordinary income, but it should be respectable. 

How did you become a scientist, yourself?

My story is a practical example of popularization of science portrayed in an interesting book can do. It was a movie, a Czech detective movie set in a microbiology laboratory, that inspired me to follow a career as a microbiologist. I was fascinated by the environment, white coats and Petri dishes. 

Since then, it went on like clockwork. For Christmas, I got Paul De Kruif's books called “Microbe Hunters” and “Men Against Death” from my mother. I was 13 years old and those books definitely got to me. Later, I read many more books written by this author and it sealed my fate. Recently, I opened these books again and found these stories still filled me with suspense. 

I also remember plenty of highly qualified teachers at my secondary school and at my university. My life was then influenced by both of my husbands (the second one was an immunologist). And I benefited from the experience of the former head of the Immunology Department, Professor Šterzl. 

Among those who significantly influenced my research career was Professor Jind?ich Kope?ek (currently at the University of Utah) whom I met much later, but who, by his unbelievable diligence, “infected” everybody around him. But it was a chain of events. I also remember the influence of tutor who supervised my university thesis. 

Despite the crisis, politicians agree that in order to make Europe competitive, we need to put more money into applied science and innovation. How do you think money should be divided between applied and basic research?

It is difficult to classify science as basic on the one hand and applied on the other. There isn’t such a sharp divide in research. We can maybe say for sure that applied science will never turn into basic research. But there are many examples of how basic, theoretical research turned into groundbreaking technologies, theories and outcomes. But nobody can predict when this will happen. 

Considering the needs of modern society is probably a wiser approach to distributing research funding. However, it’s difficult to decide what is relevant and what is not so the answer should be based on thorough surveys and a deep analysis. 

My answer is neither this nor that. But I would personally put money into such fields of basic research that are demonstrably filled with sufficient amount of talented and hard-working people, because only these people can possibly deliver quality results. Most of the researchers are in fact “fans” of science, usually with some background and a “craftsman’s” tradition. They are absolutely sure what they want to do and they would not do anything else. 

But let's get back to the comparison between science and art. Truly extraordinary people want to create paintings, or music, or sculptures. But even though they are sometimes active in several fields, they are usually excellent only in one of them. 

And as far as applied research is concerned, the situation seems less complicated from my point of view: the majority of funding should come from business, and public finance should be available only for those who have already proved that they were able to invent practical things, produce them and ultimately bring them to the market. 

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