It's not just whales and pandas that need saving, Slovak researchers stress

How far has science come in Slovakia in the 30 years since the end of Czechoslovakia?

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: SITA/AP)

How human biases affect the conservation of animal species, how meteors can be tracked to distant places in the solar system, and how people walk in the absence of orientational cues: these are just a selection of the many topics that scientists in Slovakia explored during the last quarter of 2022.

The Slovak Spectator asked the scientists about their research and how it can contribute to society – and in this summary you will learn about the progress they made.

This overview of the successes of Slovak science will be regularly compiled. To stay up to date with what scientists in Slovakia and Slovak scientists around the world are doing, subscribe to the Slovak Science newsletter, which will be sent to readers free of charge four times a year.

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Related article How much time do people dedicate to beauty? Slovak scientists contribute to research Read more 
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Science in Slovakia has changed a lot in the past 30 years

January 2023 marks 30 years since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Despite both countries being independent for three decades now, Slovakia still compares itself to the Czech Republic.

"Yet, if Slovakia wants to be competitive, it has to compare itself with other developed countries, not just with the Czechs," says Pavol Šajgalík, chairman of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV), in an interview with the Slovak Spectator.

When it comes to the number of publications or citations per researcher, on average Slovakia is no worse than its neighbours. A problem arises when indicators of excellence are taken into consideration, meaning the number of ERC projects, publications in journals in the Nature portfolio, and so on. Then a large gap appears.

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According to Šajgalík, the environment in the country is not conducive – in other words, Slovakia does not have sufficient money to motivate excellent researchers.

Still, despite the difficult situation, there are programmes that aim to help with this. The SAV head also mentions what he is particularly proud of the science that has been conducted in Slovakia.

Related article To play in the top league, you need the best players. This has not happened for Slovak science yet Read more 

Origin of the Solar System

A meteor burning up in Earth's atmosphere is nothing out of the ordinary. Our planet is constantly bombarded by chunks of rock from space. However, two years ago an extraordinary object exploded over Canada.

Based on its trajectory, it came from the Oort Cloud, a vast sphere of icy objects at the edge of our solar system. However, the way the meteor burned up in the atmosphere surprisingly pointed to it being made of solid matter rather than of ice.

Slovak astronomers from Comenius University in Bratislava contributed to the new study by providing data from their meteor-orbit network system, called AMOS.

Related article Slovaks help trace a meteor to unexpected place of origin Read more 

Bias in animal protection

When it comes to conservation of species, charismatic animals have an advantage, suggests a new study by Slovak researchers in the journal Sustainability. These species are popular, and serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate action. Typically, they are large mammals (think polar bears, giant pandas and whales).

Scientists analysed the representation of animals in studies published in three major conservation journals between 2011 and 2020. They found that mammals were overrepresented, while reptiles and amphibians were underrepresented, and blame the editors of journals and magazines, who they say should dedicate more space to underrepresented species.

This tendency did not affect only scientific journals: researchers found the same phenomenon on the cover pages of popular magazine and on social media – people seem more keen to share posts about large and attractive mammals.

But according to researchers, large animals are not the only ones that need protection.

Related article Pavol Prokop: Minorities, conservatives, and the science of disgust Read more 

Overview of other research and development activities in universities:

  • Trans identity, ethical and legal aspects; Comenius University; team leader Ľubomír Batka. This new volume presents an interdisciplinary overview of the position of transgender people in Slovakia in regards to the law, health care, feminism, theology, and more. Read more (in Slovak)
  • A European Research Council grant worth €1.5 million is coming to Slovakia, for conspiracy theory research; Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV). A project proposal authored by social anthropologist Elżbieta Drążkiewicz from the Institute for Sociology of the SAV, to study conspiracy theories, has won funding from a prestigious source. Read more.
  • Probing the world behind the mirror; Comenius University; lead scientist Lukáš F. Pašteka. The goal of the project is to prove molecular parity violation. Molecules that are crucial to fife – nucleic acids and proteins – are asymmetric in their handedness, meaning the former are right-handed and the latter left-handed. This asymmetry is critical, but its origin remains a mystery. Read more.
  • Treatment of rheumatism and joint diseases utilising gold nanoparticles; Comenius University; lead scientist Ferdinand Devínsky. When it comes to degenerative diseases of the bones and joints, gold therapy has been known for a century. However, it is no longer used due to toxic side effects. This may change as a team of pharmacy researchers has shown that gold in the form of nanoparticles can control inflammation, while having low toxicity. Read more.
  • SAS astronomers debunked myths surrounding a supposedly dangerous asteroid named 2022 AP7; Slovak Academy of Sciences. By responding with scientific facts to a series of claims, researchers informed the public using data and corrected misunderstandings regarding a space object that had been erroneously dubbed a "planet killer" due to its size. Read more.
  • Testing the effectiveness of an intervention for helping professionals; Comenius University; lead scientist Júlia Halamová. By means of a randomised study, the effectiveness of intervention aimed at reducing exhaustion among workers in the caring professions was tested. Results showed that participants in the experimental group fared better two months after the intervention compared to those in a control group. Read more.
  • Advanced electronics with supercapacitors; University of Žilina; lead scientist Michal Frivaldský. For the first time, the University of Žilina has became the coordinator of a European Space Agency research project. In cooperation with industry partners, the university will develop electric systems for space robot arms.
  • Mobile apps for improving mental health; Comenius University; lead scientist Júlia Halamová. The ratio of certified psychotherapists to inhabitants in Slovakia is 1 to more than 15,000, meaning there is a need for greater availability. A mobile app was created to help decrease the amount of self-criticism and increase self-compassion. Results on a small sample of volunteers have shown promise. Read more.
  • The role of noise in human walking in the absence of orientational cues; Comenius University; lead scientist Katarína Boďová. The goal was to find out what role randomness plays when a person moves in an environment without a sense of direction. The results confirm that people tend to walk in small circles. Scenes from horror movies where people wander like this are therefore realistic. Read more.
  • Inclusive environments in kindergarten and diagnosis and stimulation of disadvantaged children; University of Prešov; lead scientist Viera Šilonová. The goal of this project was to verify the effectiveness of a programme for socially disadvantaged children of preschool age, to create and verify a tool for the evaluation of kindergartens when it comes to inclusion, and to determine the degree of kindergarten inclusivity in selected regions of Slovakia.
  • Benchmark calculations of properties, interactions and reactivity of chemical systems; Comenius University; lead scientist Pavel Neogrády. This project aims to obtain reference data for predictions of electrical and spectral properties of molecules, their reactivity and interactions, catalysis, and other attributes and processes.
  • The role of courts in improving democracy's resilience: Party bans in Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia; Comenius University; lead researcher Max Steuer. A study examining how courts can contribute to the resilience of democracy when it comes to banning political parties, and offering recommendations on judicial decision-making and its interpretation by the public. Read more.

Other Slovak science stories on Spectator.sk:

SPACE: Slovakia has become an associate member of the European Space Agency. Although Slovak scientists are playing a key role in some cutting-edge projects, the membership will offer the country even more.

NANO LEGO: Miroslav Almáši, the recipient of last year's Eset Science Award for Outstanding Scientist in Slovakia Under the Age of 35, explains in an interview how he researches porous materials and their application.

TEACHING: Ask an exceptional student why they study, and one often learns about an inspirational teacher. Ľubomír Tomáška is a scientist and educator who tries to pass his experience on to new generations of students. He is the 2022 ESET Science Award laureate in the category Outstanding Academic in Slovakia.

LIGHT POLLUTION: People who are exposed even to dim lighting at night are more likely to gain weight and have diabetes, says Valentína Rumanová. In an interview, she explains the adverse effects that night-time light can have on human bodies.

SPACE TRAVEL: The last human to set foot on the Moon was Eugene Cernan in 1972. Although he was an American astronaut, he also had Slovak roots. That is why took a Czechoslovak flag aboard the Apollo 17 mission.

This article is supported by the ESET Foundation, which awards the ESET Science Award to exceptional scientists every year.

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