A Slovak scientist was told to go to Budapest to save Slovak science. So he went

Slovak scientists give up too soon. Science is not a race, it’s a marathon, says nuclear physicist Martin Venhart.

Nuclear physicist Martin Venhart.Nuclear physicist Martin Venhart. (Source: SME - Marko Erd)

Last year, Slovakia received its first European Research Council (ERC) grant in ten years. The number of such grants awarded is one of the metrics used to evaluate the health of the science sector in any given country. "The fact that Slovakia is not very successful in this regard tells us something," says vice-chairman of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and nuclear physicist Martin Venhart. He is hopeful though that things will get better.

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"I firmly believe that this will change, and I can already see it starting. I’m optimistic about this," he says. In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Martin Venhart talks about the challenges science in Slovakia faces and what is being done to improve the situation.

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You spend a lot of time abroad, what is it like to return to Slovakia?

Always very pleasant. I decided to live in Slovakia and I do not think that the grass is greener nor the sky bluer abroad. I have a family here, I am very happy here. I do a lot of experiments abroad and they are mostly successful, so coming back means I look forward to what we are going to discover in the data. I have an excellent team of young students and I look forward to working with them.

How does science in Slovakia fare compared to other countries?

We lack money, that is the first problem. The second is that we do not have people. The third is that we do not have equipment. We do what we can with what we have. The few success stories we hear about are not because of the system, but in spite of it. This is the situation now and it is a consequence of the past.

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I cannot change that, but I am doing my best to change the future, so that the generations that come after us will not have to struggle with what we struggled with. I think we managed to achieve something, and that is sometimes overlooked. I returned twelve years ago and the situation is much better than it used to be. I am not saying it is good or that this is what we wanted it to be, but we have come a long way. But we have a long way still ahead of us.

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When we last talked almost five years ago, you said, and I quote, "Slovak science is desperately underfunded". It this still true?

It is. We are short on money, the sum is small. When you consider how many Slovak Research and Development Agency (APVV) projects are allocated, and that there is not even a sufficient amount of them and they are badly structured, there is a total lack of schemes focused not only on investment in equipment, but mainly in people. It is not usual to have projects from which I employ doctoral or post-doctoral fellows. In countries to the west and north of us, the top groups are headed by one or two strong leaders with permanent positions.

The other researchers are paid mostly from projects. It is sort of a pyramid structure, and this is missing here. Moreover, institutional funding is insufficient. This means we cannot build everything on projects, because we may not get them. In other countries, there is some certainty. Fellows at lower levels know they will be exchanged, that they are accepted for the duration of their studies and will have to go somewhere else later. Only the best manage to reach the top floor and are institutionally funded. However, here the pyramid is inverted, making the age structure of most groups bad.

How are the countries around Slovakia doing?

The Czech Republic is miles ahead and getting closer to Western countries. Of course, it was not easy. I do not think they have better politicians than in Slovakia, some may be even worse. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic is in a different position.

After the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the starting line was pretty much the same for both countries. How did the Czechs achieve it then?

They started introducing measures, which we are now starting to gradually implement, much earlier. That is, they opened grant schemes that enabled the creation of research groups and larger units. That is the main difference. However, it was not easy for them either and they had huge problems at the beginning. We will have to overcome these problems too.

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One of the indicators of the state of the science sector in a given country is the number of ERC grants. Why these?

To some extent, this is a little bit of a trend at the moment. Still, the fact that Slovakia is not very successful in this regard tells us something.

What are the reasons behind this lack of success?

As I said, science is very underfunded. According to an analysis by SAV, if we take the standard of science at the European level and divide it by the percentage of invested GDP, we find that, basically, we are not worse off than the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland, and just a little bit worse off than Austria. However, as soon as we focus on truly breakthrough results, for example publications in Nature magazine or ERC grants - and there are several metrics such as this - we see how far we lag behind our neighbours. Funding is enough to maintain a European-level standard of science.

However, that is not enough for breakthrough discoveries, right?

No. The second problem is that there is little support when applying for ERC grants. However, things have improved significantly in recent years. It is very different to when I applied for my first ERC grant around 2012. If I had had this kind of support then, I am convinced that I would have got a grant back then.

How many ERC grants do neighbouring countries have?

Hungary has several dozen, the Czech Republic has a few less, I do not know about Poland.

And Slovakia?

I know of one that should be starting about now involving social anthropologist Elżbieta Drążkiewicz from SAV’s Institute for Sociology. It is the first one in ten years.

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Not long ago, you received €110,000 from the ESET Foundation, which should help you in obtaining an ERC grant. How did you get it?

That a private company would support basic nuclear research is in itself a miracle in Slovak conditions. The sum is huge. The problem is that this should be the icing on the cake, but the cake is missing. Still, the money will help me with part of the experimental program that I want to do within the ERC grant scheme. The grant proposal is designed in such a way that you have to show you have already done something and that it works.

This significantly increases the chance of success. Without this support it would be impossible. My group's chance has increased significantly, maybe even doubled, but it is still small. I have already reached the Advanced category, the most competitive one in which the highest grants can be obtained.

You are leading a unique experiment at CERN, a spectrometer called Tatra (an instrument used to separate and measure spectral components of a phenomenon - Ed. note). Could this help you too?

We have stopped its activity to a certain extent. If we do not get a grant, we will end it. The reason is that we do not have enough support from the Education Ministry. It makes no sense to keep it going because our competitors have caught up with us. We lost the advantage we had because the funding stopped. We have designed a new version that would be on a completely different level.

However, the money from ESET is not enough for that and I do not want to invest money in the old version, which is a bit outdated. We invested that money in experiments. We did the first pilot experiment last autumn and the results were much better than we expected. This will be one of the pillars of the application for the ERC grant.

You said that a new version of Tatra would be a significant step forward. If you do not get the grant, would CERN be interested in supporting it?

No. CERN does not directly support such things, there is no money in the budget for this. The person who submits experiments must secure the finances. That can be done only via the ERC grant, as no grant in Slovakia would be enough. Actually, this is also important as even within the ERC scheme, even good grant applications are often not successful because it is clear that these proposed projects could be funded from national sources. I know cases where an application was not successful precisely for this reason.

By Slovak standards, the original Tatra spectrometer was a unique experiment at CERN. How are Slovak scientists viewed at CERN?

In 2018, CERN Director General Fabiola Gianotti visited Slovakia. She said Slovak scientists are very important partners for CERN. However, a distinction must be made between scientists directly employed at CERN and groups in Slovakia. Among the former are those who are part of several collaborations, such as Peter Chochucla in the ALICE collaboration, or Daniel Valúch who is involved in the development of accelerator systems - methods of accelerating, monitoring and controlling various types of beams. In the latter, there are groups at the Institute of Experimental Physics of SAV in Košice, at the Physics Institute of SAV, or at the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics of the Comenius University. Officially, we involved in four collaborations.

So they have made a name for themselves?

I think so, yes. Maybe someone else should be asked the question because I am also talking about myself, and it is not easy to answer.

You mentioned that your activities could help future scientists. How so?

Since 2021 I have been vice-chairman at SAV. I voluntarily gave up part of my scientific career to get into positions to make an impact. I consider our Impulse project to be the most important. This is a system of grants given by the SAV to exceptional researchers, not necessarily just those who return to Slovakia. The evaluation is international and somewhat similar to ERC grants. The goal is to jumpstart a new generation of scientists.

The grant is in the range of €60,000 to €170,000 per year for five years. It mirrors Hungary's Momentum scheme, which started ten years ago. It was so successful that after a while the government took over. More than half of Hungary's ERC grants were received by people who went through this system. It is a successful scheme. When I met former ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon at a conference and asked him what he thought Slovakia should do, he told me to go to Budapest and copy their system. So we did.

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What are the results so far?

SAV finances everything from its own resources. In the first call, we gave three grants, now the evaluation of the second call is underway. I believe that one day we will be able to convince the Slovak government that this is the best way and to take the same steps as the Hungarian government did. What is important is that even Hungarians say that the ERC grants themselves are a completely natural consequence of the scheme.

New research groups were formed, people brought new ideas that had not been looked at before. This is also one of the conditions of the Impulse program. Thus, a new generation will be able to emerge outside established structures. Sometimes when things have remained the same for a long time, certain structures appear that are difficult to break. And the Slovak Academy of Sciences has them too.

So, in addition to funding, such structures are also a large problem for science in Slovakia?

Yes. Even if we poured ten times more money in than now, it would not solve anything. Those structures also need to be taken down. Another example related to ERC grants: the greatest chance of getting the grant is when you apply for the fourth time. But very few people in Slovakia even decide to apply for a second time. When a scientist tries and is not successful, they tell themselves they are not good enough and will not try again. I am now going to apply for the fourth time, so I believe I will be successful as I have worked on it systematically.

They give up too soon?

It’s a huge mistake. It is something no one has talked about until recently. This is not a race, it’s a marathon. And I firmly believe that this will change. I can already see it starting. I am optimistic about this. If I was not, I would not be here. If we bury our heads in the sand, nothing will change. It is time for our generation, those born at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, to take responsibility for running society.

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

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