Put people where they best fit

Societies will be competing not only for natural resources but also strive to attract the best talent, says Vladimír Šucha, the director general of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), a body tasked with providing scientific and technical advice to the European Commission. He took up the post at the beginning of 2014. Šucha believes that the educational system and the society in general should be tuned to recognise talents and put people in places where they best fit so that “we have the fulfilment of the individual while the society benefits from it too”. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Šucha about his new job, the education system, brain drain and brain circulation as well as the need for diversity in societies.

Vladimír ŠuchaVladimír Šucha (Source: Courtesy of V. Šucha)

Societies will be competing not only for natural resources but also strive to attract the best talent, says Vladimír Šucha, the director general of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), a body tasked with providing scientific and technical advice to the European Commission. He took up the post at the beginning of 2014. Šucha believes that the educational system and the society in general should be tuned to recognise talents and put people in places where they best fit so that “we have the fulfilment of the individual while the society benefits from it too”. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Šucha about his new job, the education system, brain drain and brain circulation as well as the need for diversity in societies.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the challenges your appointment brings at both professional and personal levels?
Vladimír Šucha (VŠ):
There are two types of challenges that my institution and I personally face. The first [challenge] is to manage properly a big organisation situated in six geographic locations, with 3,000 people and half-a-billion euro budget. We need to make sure that there is a proper coordination, effective knowledge-sharing and knowledge management inside the organisation and that all this is done in a cost-efficient way. Then there is the strategic challenge to become the European and world leader in transforming knowledge into policy advice and its implementation while improving the evaluation of impacts of policies on the citizens, industry and society as such.

TSS: What does your appointment mean for Slovakia?
That is difficult to answer, because there is no tangible advantage for Slovakia in having Slovak representatives nominated to the European Commission. But I would say there are more intangible benefits or added value to have somebody in the highest position of the EC who is able to remain open to Slovak research and technology institutions to help them understand Europe, its challenges and opportunities. It can be also useful for the government and its ministries, because they may, just as other member states, access useful information if they wish to adopt our culture of evidence-based policy.

TSS: What were the main milestones of your advancement into this post?
It goes back to the early 1990s when I started to be involved in policy-making at the national level as a researcher. I understood that if we want to have a better policy frame, we need to influence things. So in early 1990s, I started to be involved in different working groups in Slovakia and then with our European integration. Then I moved to a broader context of European Union policy-making in the field of research, education and culture and that brought me from Slovakia to the Commission as a director in the EC Directorate General for Education and Culture (EAC), then as a deputy director-general of Joint Research Centre of the EC, and finally to my current post of director-general January 1, 2014.

TSS: You did belong to Slovakia’s science vanguard, but you have also been mentioned as one of the examples of brain-drain. Why have many of the best brains of Slovakia left the country? Is it due to economic conditions or are there some other factors?
I am actually working for the European Commission and thus I would not consider me an example of brain drain. Slovakia is a part of the EU and we are contributing to the budget of the EU and we should consider this as an investment into our future. I consider my position as a part of our active involvement in EU governance. It’s more of a capacity to influence things at the EU level. I am Slovak and I will always have in my understanding this cultural background. I am contributing to the shaping of European policies, which is taking into account different cultural backgrounds and different country perspectives. It is in the interest of the Commission to maintain this diversity.

Nevertheless, brain drain in different fields is a reality. In the research field it is linked to our very low capacity to have excellent research centres with a certain critical mass. This is actually the problem: that we cannot do excellent research and have a critical mass in all fields. A small country like Slovakia should decide to have two, three or maximum four important centres where we can attract people. Perhaps we should not talk about brain drain but brain circulation instead, because we need to have mobility, which has been for centuries the major learning approach to gain new skills. It is absolutely crucial for scientific development and advancement. In Slovakia’s case, it is only one-way mobility, because we are not building our capacity to attract. In order to attract you need to be visible, excellent, and relevant. Once we have a field where we can easily get good brains from other parts of the world then we will have this balance.

TSS: You have several times stressed the importance of connecting academic research with practice and called for an eco-systemic approach to science and education. Could you briefly describe how such approach should work?
In Slovakia, but also overall in Europe, we have education systems designed for the first industrial revolution. We still believe that if we are getting higher-level diploma, we will have a better life. This is a linear approach and more of a pattern for the developing rather than for the developed world. The world has changed and if we want to get the best out of people, we should not be producing hamburger-type of products in the field of human resources: pre-defined number of subjects and hours, etc. The approach must be much more individual and we have to be extremely innovative. What is invented is much more important than what is made or used. Just take the example of iPhone. They are produced outside the US, but they were invented in America and the biggest added value stays there.

To have an innovative society we need creative individuals, but they cannot be nurtured in a standardised way. The biggest challenge is to move from formal to more informal, experience-driven education, which will empower individuals to find their own talents they can nourish in the future. That’s the basis of the eco-system. For an innovative eco-system, for advanced manufacturing or new innovative products, we need to have talented people first. The eco-system assumes the interaction of these talented people; then interaction between technology, knowledge, policy-making and financial systems, which is extremely important to get a new product to the market and new social innovations to society. Innovations are appearing only through interaction. Then, the cultural dimension is also important since culture is bringing a new way of looking at things; a sort of fresh air, fresh blood into the system. We somehow understand culture as a cherry on the cake, but not an important element. But it is an extremely important element for innovation and for talent development.

TSS: You have been stressing the importance of support for talented people in science and research. Why are Slovak institutions doing such a poor job in recognizing and supporting talents? How can this change?
We need to rethink education; rethink the system and then we need courage not to look for average, but rather cutting-edge people. We should recognise talents, but I am not talking just of a small layer of the most talented people. Everybody is excellent in something and the key is to discover this quality and channel it into his or her skills development so that the society can also get the best out of it. Then we have the fulfilment of the individual, while society benefits from it too. It is the capacity of the education system and later on the society to discover and to put people to the place where they fit the best. With the standardised approach we are killing the talents and creativity. We are channelling people where we think they need to be but eventually might not have capacity and thus they are not using their full potential.

TSS: Is the problem of science and education in Slovakia because of insufficient state support, as universities and institutions often suggest, or does the problem germinate from within the system itself?
We will never have enough money and I do not think that is the major problem. I perfectly understand decision-makers not putting a lot of money into a system which is just processing the money and is not clearly designed to produce some good outcome. We need to rethink the system and then the money may come. Once we start using the resources in more efficient ways we might not need in absolute terms more money, we just need to put to the right places. The key for education is the personality of teachers. Thus we should put the teachers to a very high place in the society. We have been underestimating this for many years and we are paying a high toll for doing so. We insist on high recognition and good material support to teachers.

TSS: The European Commission has been supporting mobility within academia. Slovakia is not yet among the popular destinations for foreign students. Why should the country try to attract more foreign students and academics to Slovakia?
Societies will be competing not only for natural resources but more and more struggling to attract the best talent. If we want to be successful, we need to attract people and inspire our own talented people to stay or to come back after gaining experience abroad. We also need to bring in people for certain fields. Maybe not necessarily attract the best people from Silicon Valley because we are far from being competitive, but we may attract the best people from Ukraine, Serbia or Croatia, where the language barriers are not so wide. After a certain time they can return home with their gained experience so we are implicitly helping them, but we are also helping ourselves. If Slovaks stay only with Slovaks, they will all have one cultural background and point of view. We need to harness diversity inside Slovakia. We have minorities in Slovakia and we should use them to empower our cultural richness and capacity to innovate. We have large Hungarian and Roma minorities with fantastic potential.

When it comes to Roma we are mostly look at them as burden for the society, but instead we should see the huge potential and work on using the potential and source for enriching our culture. We should be looking at neighbouring countries or more distant geographical places and areas in terms of knowledge that can enrich the society. We will be getting two major benefits: more innovative and creative people and understanding the complexity of the globe and leaving the fears behind. Isolation in societies results in xenophobia. Once we are more open, more tolerant, we will be more self-confident because we will discover that Slovaks are just as good as Americans or French or British and that the Roma are just as good as Slovaks or Hungarians. It will boost our capacity to resist temptations of extremism, because that is a huge danger and we are not self-confident enough to be resistant against the temptation of easy solutions. Once we understand the complexity of the world we will understand that easy solutions are only in the heads of stupid people.

TSS: You have also said that a university needs to have a soul? Is there a university with a soul in Slovakia, or in the wider Visegrad Four region?
This is a tough question. It is as if you would ask me to describe love. Yet, once love is gone you certainly feel it. It is the same with the energy of institutions. If you go to one with soul you instantly feel involved. If you come to an institution and all you feel is people, doors, corridors, laboratories, classrooms and offices but there is no vibration or energy of the space, then there is no soul. Yet, it is people who create the energy not laboratory equipment.

I spent a few days at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I entered the building and I instantly felt the energy. It was full of people from early morning to late night. They were studying, discussing and the environment was very stimulating. In Europe, we often have the university in prestigious old buildings but you don’t always feel this energy.

TSS: The education system in Slovakia is a huge concern. The government is now focusing on vocational education while it now has a list of professions it would support. What are the risks, if any, in such approach? What should the attributes of a larger education reform be?
I don’t really believe in big education reform. We should create a learning eco-system. There is nothing wrong with vocational training, but we should not be obsessed by it. We should not be obsessed by one element because we need to have diversities of school and cultures. We need to invest in good teachers and in the quality of people. I used to be teacher at university and I was always admiring teachers at elementary schools because those first five years are the most decisive and most difficult. I am sure that 90 percent of those teachers teaching at elementary schools are not doing that for money. It is similar with research. Most researchers are not doing it for money they are doing it for the special feeling of discovering something. We need to give the teachers more recognition because it is quite horrifying when teachers are seen as poor servants of pupils. We need to base our education reform on empowering teachers and raising their societal and material status.

There is a deterioration of values here. If you go to Japan, there is somebody who is cleaning the streets or toilets and this person is proud of what he or she is doing. The toilet cleaner can be an elite if is somebody is doing it with high quality of performance. For a society this value is extremely important. Once we understand this, we will be putting things into the right place.

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