For the past fifteen years, he has led – and will continue to lead – his own research group at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden. He also has experience from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg and from the University of California in Berkeley. The evolutionary biologist Pavel Tomancak has now become the new director of the consortium of the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC). As he says, he has a huge network of contacts among active scientists in the management of the world's leading organizations – and that is an asset that he wants to bring to Brno.
"At least thirty leading international scientists apply to the Max Planck Institute in Dresden after the opening of a group leader position. We usually choose one or two. This is the type of talent that we must attract to Brno. The money for research will then follow them," predicts Tomancak.
And where does he want to lead CEITEC? "We need to think in much longer time horizons and invest in areas that will push the boundaries of human knowledge so that we can cope better with crises such as COVID. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which we are now trying to apply widely, is literally stuffed with modern molecular biology knowledge, whose roots go back decades. RNA vaccines were not invented overnight in Germany in response to COVID. It is the culmination of basic research dating back to the pioneering days of molecular biology. And Brno is now at the forefront of molecular biology. We have to keep looking for the next big thing!”
Are you already arranging housing in Brno?
No, I'm not moving to Brno yet. The post of director of the CEITEC Consortium is mainly a scientifically political post. It focuses mainly on connecting science at CEITEC to the international scientific community. Therefore, I will continue to do my own science at Max Planck in Dresden, where I have a permanent position, which is something extraordinary, and I have been working on it for the last twenty-five years. There must be a good reason to leave such a position. Brno has not yet offered such a reason, in the sense of supporting my science. But I never say never, and I definitely see the position of the director of the CEITEC consortium as the first step on my way back to Brno. In any case, I will be going to the Moravian metropolis very often. The reconstruction of the D1 motorway, which has troubled me enough, seems to be finally coming to an end, so hopefully it will go even more smoothly now.
When we compare the Max Planck Institute and CEITEC, do you perceive these two organizations in terms of scientific prestige on the same level, or is Max Planck doing science in a totally different league?
Max Planck is a nationwide organization supporting basic research with more than a century of tradition that produced thirty-four Nobel Prizes. We would compare here the incomparable. “My” branch of Max Planck in Dresden is more relevant, it has existed for more than twenty years, but during that time the institute has built itself an excellent reputation in the international scientific community. Top talents from all over the world compete with the aim to gain the position of junior group leaders here, we produce fundamental discoveries in abundance and as well as many prestigious publications that are so important in the scientific world. We get praised for our innovative approach and for good management of a scientific institution, as well as for the distinctive atmosphere of interdisciplinary scientific cooperation. Max Planck in Dresden is simply a big name in the scientific world. However, I would like to help CEITEC gradually get into a similar position.
Did you apply for this position yourself, or did someone approach you?
I have been following CEITEC for some time, I have colleagues there, as well as scientific collaborations. I am also a member of the CEITEC MU Scientific Council. And yes, I was approached. In the Czech Republic, I think it's not even possible to recruit otherwise at this level yet. It is unlikely that the right candidates will apply for the open competition, because, as I mentioned, the position does not include support for the candidate's scientific research or long-term perspective. And these are things that are natural for senior researchers qualified for leadership positions in institutions such as CEITEC.
What happened next?
I had an intensive interview with the statutory representatives of CEITEC partners, ie with university rectors and directors of individual institutes. I would say that it was difficult, I had to convince them that I mean it and that I have an interesting vision. But it was not a classic competition in the style that you deal with how many languages the candidate speaks. In this case, the interview is about attracting a well-established scientific personality to the project, in this case CEITEC. It is not a one-sided matter, in the sense that one party chooses the other.
Your predecessor, Markus Dettenhofer, a graduate from the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard, headed CEITEC for eight years. Which of the Dettenhofer practices would you like to keep, and where are you heading in a different direction?
Markus did a lot of great work for CEITEC and I have something to build on. Our scientific genealogy is not that different. I did a PhD at EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a research institution supported by 27 Member States) in Heidelberg, Germany and then worked for five years at the University of California, in Berkeley. Unlike Markus, who switched to scientific management after his studies, I am a very active scientist. I have been leading a successful research group for fifteen years and I live for science today and every day. As an active researcher who has been working with such internationally connected institutions such as EMBL, Max Planck or Janelia in the United States (Janelia Research Campus is a scientific research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia), I have a huge network of contacts among active scientists in the leadership of these organizations. And this is something I would like to offer to CEITEC – a connection to international organizations.
Can you be more specific?
Max Planck has a mandate from the German government to positively influence research – and by Max Planck´s terms this always means basic research – east of the German border. There is a special program, called Dioscuri, through which Max Planck helps to set up junior research groups in Central and Eastern Europe that meet Max Planck's uncompromising quality criteria. The so-called Max Planck centres are being established, so far mainly in Poland. My goal is to bring this indisputable quality also to CEITEC. This is just one example of connecting into international scientific networks, which I think I am able to implement effectively. My agenda also includes the formulation of a meaningful interdisciplinary scientific strategy of the entire consortium, the reorganization of evaluations by the International Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB), communication between partners, scientifically tuned PR in the Czech Republic and especially abroad, and then my favourite mentoring. But that's all for a longer conversation later on, because I'm just getting to know the situation at CEITEC.
You are taking over CEITEC at the peak of a pandemic crisis, when everything, including the travel of scientists, exchanges within universities and scientific institutions, is severely paralyzed. How did the pandemic affect the functioning of CEITEC, were any scientific projects stopped?
At this stage, it's definitely not a question for me, but I can tell you how the pandemic affected me personally. I live in Germany and the borders are closed, so I feel a bit like an emigrant. On the other hand, the modern world is interconnected online. We work quite normally at Max Planck, but we handle any meetings via the Zoom application in order to minimize contact between people who do not necessarily meet. I'm sure it works similarly at CEITEC. I have been in the office for less than a month, but I already have, so to speak, about twenty hours of online meetings with CEITEC stakeholders, starting with the highest positions of directors of partner institutions, for whom it is of course important to understand who I am and what my intentions are. Gradually, in this way, I will work through all levels of the centre, and meet the leaders of research groups, heads of support service departments, post-docs, PhD students and administration employees, with whom I am already in contact on an ongoing basis. I also talk to representatives of scientifically oriented institutions, not only academic ones, which are based in Brno, but outside CEITEC. I want to understand the whole science ecosystem around Brno. It will take some time, but I think that pandemics and online tools paradoxically simplify this process to some extent. We don't have to deal with traveling where and when to meet, we all have relatively empty calendars because we don't travel that much or not at all. Therefore, we're just calling…Zoom, Skype, Teams, phone, I do everything, even pigeon post if it would be needed.
You praise teleworking, but are you also able to compete for grants and progress with research as intensively as before the pandemic?
Me personally? Yes. Last year I received an Advanced ERC grant, which I think is the most difficult grant competition in Europe. You can count the Czech scientists who have been awarded this grant on the fingers of one hand. Literally. And that's wrong. It does not reflect the quality of Czech science. The EU wants to promote excellence across Europe, but finds it mainly in the most famous centres in Switzerland, Germany, Israel and England. As if excellence were not present in the Czech Republic. That cannot be true. I regularly point out this illogical disparity on Twitter and will do everything I can to change it. And we have to begin with ourselves, for example at CEITEC, we must have the ambition to write these grants, although the chances of obtaining them may seem slim. As far as I know, COVID does not affect the centre of scientific ambition in the brain, so in this sense I do not see it as a burning problem at this moment.
Currently, the annual budget of the CEITEC consortium is close to 30 million euros (790 million crowns) and about a thousand scientists from all over the world work in the centre. Do you want to keep these numbers next year, or do you plan to change some of them?
As I mentioned, I will try to bring in foreign partners and, for example, the Dioscuri program I mentioned earlier is also associated with a financial injection. There is never enough money. But I consider it much more important to make CEITEC attractive for talented scientists. We will not be able to reach the very top, it is unrealistic, but there is excess pressure on these positions. At Max Planck in Dresden, we receive about one hundred and twenty applications for any new position of a research group leader, out of which eighty are good. We will study twenty thoroughly, invite ten candidates to the audition and select one. There are at least thirty people there every year at a level acceptable to Max Planck, and these are the scientists we need to attract to Brno. The money for research will then follow after them.
CEITEC focuses on live sciences, you surely research also cells, viruses and bacteria. Will CEITEC contribute to solving the current pandemic situations under your leadership?
CEITEC is actively involved in the preparation stage for the creation of a new institute of virology in cooperation with the Czech Academy of Sciences. We have at least one full-fledged virologist at CEITEC, in English it is beautifully called a card-carrying virologist. It is Pavel Plevka. You may have heard him speak clearly and intelligently on television. We are therefore at the heart of the pandemic response. On the other hand, it is not only COVID that provides scientists with a living. We are not the only ones in Europe to consider investing in virology. It's understandable, but it's not strategic. We need to think in much longer time horizons and invest in areas that will push the boundaries of human knowledge to be able also to face other crises of the future such as COVID. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which we are now trying to apply widely, is literally filled with modern knowledge of molecular biology, and its roots go back decades. It is not the case that RNA vaccines were invented in Germany in response to COVID. It is the culmination of basic research results dating back to the pioneering days of molecular biology. And Brno is now at the forefront of molecular biology. We have to keep looking for the next big thing, and that will require support for projects that may not yet look to have the socio-economic impact we are so desperately seeking.
You are an evolutionary biologist. Can we say that with each such pandemic, humanity gains a certain resilience? Will our organisms remember that we have gone through this, and will we be more resistant to coronaviruses in the future generations?
A simple answer is that the evolution of the virus takes place on time scales that are incomparable with human evolution. The virus will always be one step ahead. On the other hand, we are primates who have developed relatively sophisticated tools for fighting the virus in real time. In this case not evolutionary, where we have been evolving for millions of years. Viruses are the simplest living systems, there is even an academic debate about whether they are really alive, and we understand them very well. Up to molecular details. The problem is that they interact with two complex systems that we still don't understand nearly as well. One of them are the cells of the human body and its extremely sophisticated adaptive immune system. And the other one is human society, an ecosystem comparable in complexity to the small universe within cells. In addition, these two complex systems are interconnected and interact, so our models are not and cannot be accurate. We do not know exactly how the individual immune system of each of us responds to a given viral particle. Or, we can't predict in our models that, for example, a certain part of the population is willing to believe to the conspiracy theory about the vaccine and Bill Gates…
You have been the director of CEITEC since the beginning of February. What is the very first and most important thing you will focus on now?
Finally, a relatively simple question. I need a deeper understanding of what science at CEITEC is about. And that's why I have to talk to scientists. There are some sixty research groups waiting for me and I would like to spend at least half a day with each one of them. So, there will be enough work, but I really enjoy this. At Max Planck, we have such a high awareness of what our colleagues are working on, that, with a bit of exaggeration, we are able to convincingly present their research. This is based on the ongoing communication that is taking place today and every day at Max Planck in Dresden. I want to gradually get this level of insight into the CEITEC scientific agenda.
Will you change anything when it comes to cooperation with universities? For example, do you want to attract more students to CEITEC, or do you want to get more CEITEC scientists to be closer engaged with the university students?
First, CEITEC is a university. It is a university institute (both at MU and BUT, which are the majority partners) that deals with science. This inevitably includes the education of students. I will answer you specifically – there are some areas where CEITEC is really strong. It is electron microscopy and structural biology. At the same time, because biologists are mainly concerned with the dynamics of living systems and this is something that electron structural biology is unable to capture because it works only with dead samples. However, the field of light sheet microscopy is also developing very dynamically at CEITEC. There is now a unique opportunity to connect these two worlds and to build interdisciplinary bridges that will allow us to capture the dynamics of life and then freeze them at the right moment. And then it will be possible to look at the ultrastructure down to the atomic level. This is a global trend, but there are only a few young scientists who can combine those approaches. That is why we want to establish a new master's program at CEITEC, in cooperation with the university, which will focus on educating multidisciplinary scientists focused on biology, physics, engineering and computer science to study the dynamics and ultrastructure of complex processes, which we call “life”. In Brno, at CEITEC, the conditions for this vision are almost ideal.
You have spent 25 years at top foreign research institutions. How do they perceive Czech science, for example, in Germany, in the USA or in Great Britain?
In the USA, for the average American, everything in Europe is "close to Paris". Of course, in the scientific world, awareness about Europe is better. But hand on heart: what do we know about research at the University of Iowa? In my opinion, European science will have to get used to the fact that we are here and will stay here and they will have to count on us.
I will return to the Dresden example one last time. It used to be a bastion of communism, also called the “Tal der Ahnungslosen” by the rest of Germany, which means something like a “valley of the fools” because once the signal of the West German television did not reach up to here. Science in Dresden was totally at the bottom after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And now? Thanks to our Max Planck Institute, the University of Dresden belongs to the German Ivy League, since then it twice won the competition of the so-called Excellence Initiative and several very important research institutions across various disciplines have been born and flourished here. Dresden is now clearly a city of science, and if it were not for the extremist political groups such as PEGIDA (a German civic initiative based in Dresden, which has been organizing demonstrations against the Islamization of Germany since October 2014), we would now be the number one destination for scientists from around the world. Despite this, we manage to attract first-class researchers. The city, as well as the Saxon government continue to invest in science, literally huge sums.
Recently, for example, a local competition was announced for the establishment of two new science centres with investments of 170 million euros per year for each of them (4.4 billion Czech Crowns), in the long term. The government and the city know very well that the future of this region lies in science.
We are also on our way and we aim for the top. Masaryk University has changed beyond recognition since I studied here in the early 1990s. The EU is pouring large funds into Brno, the Czech Republic, and Central and Eastern European science, although sometimes a little pointlessly, but this is a different debate. Don't let my colleagues in Oxford get mad at me, but they don't have this type of dynamic there, this kind of change and drive. They have better Port wine, but Moravian wine has also been improving rapidly in recent years.
So, you're saying that Czech science is well on its way… Do you think it's taking unnecessary steps back? What should change in Czech science?
My impression of Czech science is that an unnecessary amount of emphasis is placed on quantity and much less on quality. Everyone is being pushed to get more grants, to report more publications, to buy more expensive devices, to have a bigger laboratory, in terms of personnel or space. The problem is, none of this counts much in the rest of the world. How many square metres you have, how many postdocs, how many national grants… They will take you seriously only when you ask yourself some really interesting, new question and once you make a discovery that is big enough to be talked about. Or you have to create some tool or software that everyone uses. Or you have to start a business based on an idea that came from your science. Or your laboratory will produce young scientific talents, which will then prosper and thrive outside the Czech Republic, for example. Only then, they will start inviting you for lectures, talk about cooperation, integrate you into science consortia or even quietly envy you. Unfortunately, such things cannot be bibliometrically measured, because this is often one big, really good project taking up to five years, or things like mentoring, which we do not follow at all. Thus, in our system of Czech internal comparison using the current criteria, such visionary scientists may even be disadvantaged. Which, of course, might not bother them, because if they have the ambition to truly excel, they'll pack up their stuff and accept a position at ETH in Zurich, for example (ETH Zürich is one of the world's leading universities in technology and science) where they will be more appreciated in standard terms, not to mention financially. But Czech science will lose again. So yes, I would like to change a few things in the Czech scientific environment.
The author is Zuzana Kemenyova (Editor of Hospodarske noviny)
Translated by Ester Jarour (CEITEC)