In the space of just a few months, two scientists in Slovakia received European Research Council (ERC) grants after years of no one from the country being awarded the prestigious funding. Having spent years at the Swiss federal institute of technology ETH Zurich, Miroslav Baláž, who is applying for an ERC grant to study metabolic processes and develop treatments for non-communicable diseases, has returned to Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Baláž, who is now at the Biomedical Research Centre at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV), about how he hopes to help improve science in Slovakia.
You spent seven years in Switzerland. Why did you leave Slovakia to work abroad?
I wanted to learn how cutting-edge science is done abroad, and then at some point come back and pass on my experience to younger colleagues, students and my team. I had visited the translational nutrition research at the department of health science and technology at ETH Zurich during my doctoral studies through the National Scholarship Programme of the Slovak Republic, and after just a few weeks I realised how different the environment was, how it enriched me. When I returned to Slovakia to finish my PhD in Bratislava, I knew I would come back eventually.
Was there no chance to learn how to do science at that level in Slovakia?
There are a few teams in Slovakia that do high-quality science, but they are certainly not comparable. Research abroad is different from research in Slovakia.
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What is the biggest difference?
At top research institutions abroad, there are unlimited possibilities. Here in Slovakia, we work with what we have: limited finances, equipment, and often also thinking. In leading countries, the sky is the limit. Any machine I think of, I can get. One does not have to know how to make the maximum out of the minimum, as is the case in Slovakia, because the maximum is available. All I have to do is turn it into success.
Many scientists say money is the problem. Nuclear physicist Martin Venhart has said old structures dating back to socialism need to be dismantled while chemist Michal Májek spoke of excessive bureaucracy. Why is it like this in Slovakia?
I think that the biggest problem is the financing of Slovak science. Before the elections, everyone says it is their priority, but as soon as the elections are over and the budget is drawn up, science is the first area where savings are made. Then there’s bureaucracy - a Slovak scientist spends a lot of time in front of a computer dealing with nonsense. The public procurement process is nonsense in that it ties our hands and slows our work and progress.
And I agree about the old structures. I think that socialism is still entrenched in Slovak science. It is not only that we have little money, but the way it is allocated too. Leading countries have a higher budget that they divide between twenty percent of the best teams and projects. One of the two national funding schemes in Slovakia supports 70-80 percent of all submitted projects, but only with a small amount of money, which means that we support quantity over quality. The allocated sum it not enough to conduct high-quality research. It enables the survival of average and below-average research teams.
A generational change is needed so that people with exceptional management skills who know how to finance excellent research and who want to demolish the old structures, get into positions of leadership at institutes.
The seven years which you were abroad is a long time. Has anything changed for the better in Slovakia during that time?
I have seen many positive changes. I was a doctoral student at the Institute of Experimental Endocrinology. While I was gone, it moved and became a part of the Biomedical Research Centre of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, which is home to the best Slovak biomedical institutes. The management actively creates opportunities for young people. Meanwhile, administrative support workplaces have been created, such as the Project Department, which is excellent. When I need something, they know how to help me and relieve me of bureaucracy. Changes are happening, unfortunately they are happening slowly. As a result, the gap between the West and us deepens.
You mentioned that you wanted to come back to pass on your experience and knowledge further. How do you want to do this?
My goal is to build a research team and secure sufficient funding so that it can operate at a level similar to that abroad. I want to actively impart knowledge to its members. That does not mean taking in a lot of students and having them as a cheap workforce, but focusing on quality, to select the best students and invest time in them so that they become smart researchers willing to travel and do the same as me, to spend time at leading research institutions abroad, then come back and build their own teams, and bring quality to Slovakia.
In Slovakia, it is almost expected that if you are a scientist, or a professional in another field, you will leave. So, it’s surprising to find someone who wants to return. Why did you want to come back?
To change things for the better. If we as Slovaks say to ourselves that it is not possible and we do not try it and just stay in New York or Zurich, there will be no one to make positive changes. Slovakia is specific in that many people are fed up with the system, or the conditions, but will not do anything actively to change it.
And do not even offer solutions.
Yes. And even at the same time, it is a big problem that criticising is also unacceptable. Sometimes I feel like people only want to talk about the weather. But when someone openly criticises something and says that it can be done better, all hell breaks loose. If we know that a system is not functioning well and we can say where the problems are, we can look for solutions. However, for that, successful people have to return to Slovakia and help move it forward. People who grew up in this system learned to cope with difficulties. To tell you the truth, I am often amazed at how smart people are, that they know how to make things work despite obstacles, but if we do not do anything, nothing will change.
How will the ESET Foundation [which helped with funding his ERC application – Ed. Note] money help you create a research group?
The money allowed me set up my group. There is no national support scheme in Slovakia to attract experienced young people from abroad, to finance research teams and to support efforts to get funding either in Slovakia or from abroad. When a young scientist with a good resume appears, they simply do not have the starting money – they cannot even buy a pen, let alone a chair or laboratory equipment. Thanks to the foundation’s support, I was also able to equip our laboratory and very quickly continue the research that I had been doing abroad.
Your goal is to receive an ERC grant. What will the grant enable you to do?
It is a large amount of money that will open up more possibilities. One is to attract people from abroad, to buy critical infrastructure, which is sorely lacking in Slovakia, but also to do the most sophisticated experiments we can imagine. Under current conditions, this is not possible.
Have you applied before?
I applied for an ERC Starting Grant in 2020, got a B grade and narrowly missed the shortlist. I applied again in February.
I have heard it usually takes four tries to get it.
Yes. But I also know people who succeeded first time. I am very happy to say that my wife, who is also my colleague, has been invited to an interview for the final selection for an ERC Starting Grant.
Why did the ESET Foundation choose you?
I think I was chosen based on my evaluations in the ERC grant applications. Slovaks have been very unsuccessful with them in the past, but this is finally changing. At the same time, however, we submit very few applications. I think mine is one of the better projects in recent years, and that is why the ESET Foundation chose me as it would raise the chances of me submitting an application and that the grant would come to Slovakia.
Why do you think Slovaks submit few applications?
We know what limited options we have and we know what unlimited options there are in neighbouring states. Just look at the Czech Republic. That is why we consider it a waste of time, because writing an application takes two months of intensive work. If a Slovak scientist knows in advance that their chances are slim because they cannot provide methodologies, and do not have a slick resume, many ask themselves what the point is in submitting an application and won’t waste their time.
So Slovaks underestimate themselves?
But according to research by SAV, in general Slovak scientists do not lag behind their European peers, but at top-tier level, it is a different story. What do you think of Slovak scientists?
They’re very creative. Those I have met abroad are recognised for their work. I also know that there is interest in Slovaks, because they are taught to work efficiently, paradoxically thanks to the system we have here. They know how to deal with problems. This is the good news. But, when Slovaks move away and succeed, because we are a smart nation, they do not come back. We don’t have what is needed to attract Slovaks from abroad, that would compel them to come back – that they would get money so they can work.
When a new professor was wanted at ETH Zurich, experts from all over the world were approached and told they would be able to renovate their workplace, buy equipment, employ the people they wanted. That person then gets time to show that they are excellent. But if they do not, someone else will replace them. This is what supporting science and a competitive research environment should look like.
But in Slovakia, as you mentioned, support ends after elections.
Exactly. We are very much looking forward to what happens with the Recovery Plan because it’s as a unique opportunity. To tell the truth, we are all relying on funds coming and grants being opened up to us gradually. Hopefully, we won’t prove we are a country of wasted opportunities. One part of the plan is support for science and within that there are several schemes that are supposed to attract experts from abroad, as well as create decent conditions for Slovak experts. There are also schemes that are supposed to cover unfunded but high-quality submissions to the ERC scheme.
What exactly does your project involve?
Primarily, we study adipose tissue (body fat - Ed. note) metabolism, but we also look at the liver, muscle and pancreas, basically, the main metabolically active organs and tissues in our body.
Why is this research important? Do we not know enough about these already?
We still do not know enough to be able to reverse non-communicable diseases and conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease. The prevalence of obesity continues to rise. If we do not change our lifestyle or a significant discovery is not made, by 2050 up to two billion people worldwide will be obese.
What are you hoping to find?
We are trying to identify new mechanisms that control the metabolic activity of these tissues i.e. the mechanisms which determine whether the muscle will be lazy and not burn sugars and fats, or on the contrary, will be active and burn them. Adipose tissue is the same - it either actively burns, or passively stores, fat. We are trying to understand how these processes are regulated to identify new treatments for obesity and diabetes.
This article is supported by the ESET Foundation, which awards the ESET Science Award to exceptional scientists every year.