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Let’s be courageous and not panic, says Rector Matějka

Pavel Matějka

The winter semester will start soon, and UCT Prague’s celebration of 70 years of its independent existence is just around the corner. These events are framed by problems such as rising energy costs and unusually high inflation rates. How is UCT Prague preparing for this challenging period? Rector Pavel Matějka answers.

The official celebration of 70 years of UCT Prague’s independent existence will soon begin. What will it include?

Several celebratory events are planned, and together, they will show that UCT Prague is an advanced, research-oriented, and internationally connected university cognisant of its present and past successes but continuously charting new future horizons. The most festive events are scheduled for 22 and 23 September. Kicking things off will be the launch of a new book, Focused on Chemistry, and the first meeting of our new international advisory board. The next morning, we will award honorary doctorates and the Emil Votoček Medal in Strahov Monastery, and in the afternoon, I hope to meet all of you at our Dejvice campus in order to enjoy KampusFest, featuring events planned by our student associations, excursions around our campus, and contemporary music performances. I would be very happy if large numbers of alumni would attend KampusFest, so they could see how much UCT Prague has evolved since they graduated.

Can you tell us more about who will be granted doctor honoris causa titles?

On the one hand, the awardees were chosen because of their indisputable scientific achievements and ties to UCT Prague. On the other hand, our selections send a signal to the world about UCT Prague’s ambitions for the future. Professor Peter Seeberger is an extremely respected researcher specializing in chemistry at the globally recognized Max Planck Institute, and his devotion to green chemistry and downstream industrial transformation has greatly expanded possible future directions for the chemical disciplines. In addition to her extraordinary expertise, Professor Eva Zažímalová, President of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, with whom we cooperate in various ways, also serves on our Board of Directors. Doctor Zdeněk Hostomský successfully connected the academic and corporate spheres of pharmaceutical research as head of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences for eight years. During his term in office, our cooperation significantly intensified, benefiting both institutions. He is the new Director of the National Institute of Virology and Bacteriology, of which we are members. There is a tremendous future in the field of virology, and we certainly have something to contribute there.

Who will receive the Emil Votoček Medal?

We originally had three laureates, but unfortunately, Professor Per Jensen from the University of Wuppertal passed away this June. In the end, two medals will be awarded to Professor Martin Hof, Director of the Jaroslav Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and to our Professor Aleš Procházka, who has greatly contributed to the development of activities in UCT Prague’s information and control systems and who connects us with CTU in Prague. Of course, representatives of Czech ministries and universities, international partners, and other important institutions will attend the award ceremony.

Earlier in this interview, you mentioned the publication of a new book about UCT Prague’s history, Focused on Chemistry. What is it about? Was it complicated to compile?

Indeed, it was very complex and work on it spanned several years. I would like to highlight the commitment of authors Věra Dvořáčková and Ivana Lorencová, as well as Eva Dibuszová, without whom the book would never have been created. The authors managed to compile an external perspective on the development of technical chemistry in the Czech Republic and at UCT Prague itself, considered from a professional-historical point of view up to the 1990s. This had never been done before. Main obstacles came the authors had to deal with were due to gaps in the historical record from the Bolshevik regime period. Overall, the book leaves the impression of being balanced;  its aspiration is not to cover every single event and personality deserving mention. It is rich in visual materials, many of which are being published for the first time. As a takeaway from the book, you can sense that if we don’t give up on enthusiasm and quality work, UCT Prague has a great future ahead of it.

Will there be any other events connected to the September celebration?

We would like to organize a lecture series that will highlight current UCT Prague research activities, which will also benefit us internally: researchers will have the opportunity to find out in person what their colleagues are doing and how they could be useful to one another. At the end of November, the traditional UCT Prague Advent Concert will take place, connected to the presentation of the Rector's Awards. It’s planned that this time the awards will reflect not only the recent accomplishments, but rather refer to those of previous years.

What will be the role of the aforementioned international advisory board (IAB) and why was it established?

Since the beginning of my term in office, I planned to create an IAB. As part of the 17+ Methodology evaluation, we assembled an international evaluation panel. Satisfied with its work, we approached members of the panel and the majority of them joined the new advisory body. The important thing is that those people already know a lot about UCT Prague and understand the key topics that we are currently dealing with. These experts are from various countries, from Great Britain to France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. The board has nine members, including people from out-of-university settings. For example, Dr. Feise works at BASF. He was the long-time Chair of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers and represents the corporate/industrial sector perspective, with BASF being one of the key chemical companies in Europe. Doctoral education is also extremely important for UCT Prague, so the Director of the University of Tampere’s Doctoral School, Pirjo Nikander, who has strong ties to the European University Association and its committee for doctoral education, is also a board member.

In addition to improving doctoral studies, the IAB will be tasked in helping to create conditions for deepening UCT Prague’s global ties and increasing its attractiveness to potential employees and students from abroad. All board members also have received an English translation of our annual report together with a request for feedback on areas of interest to them.

This year’s hot topic is the significant increase in energy costs, high inflation rates, and the related need to start saving drastically (not only) at universities. How is UCT Prague coping with the new situation and what is the outlook for the coming months?

UCT energy costs increases for the 3rd and 4th quarters of this year will total approximately 30 million CZK. This is a lot, but if we compare it to the development of the stock market over the summer, we can be pleased. The bigger question is what will happen next year, because we didn’t have a chance to conclude a longer contract under the given financial conditions due to the tremendous uncertainty in the markets and with suppliers. If the situation does not change, we can assume an increase in expenses for 2023 by more than 100 million CZK over 2022. These are alarming numbers, and I am not even mentioning high inflation. It is certain that universities cannot cope with such increases on their own. That is why negotiations are underway with politicians about financial support at the level of the Czech Rectors Conference, and a meeting of the Chairs of the Boards of the Association of Research Universities is being prepared in order to create a joint position on the topic, which will subsequently be resolved with the Ministries of Education and Finance. Nevertheless, we have to find ways to save money ourselves. We have to be prepared for various crisis scenarios, where, in the event of bad developments, classes may be shortened in the winter semester, there may be even energy-saving furloughs, the start of classes in the summer semester could be postponed, or laboratory access could be limited. These are very extreme scenarios, but they could save electricity, water, and heat in an emergency. However, I emphasize that I am talking about crisis scenarios and we will make decisions based on developments in the coming weeks. The current measures are such that we are looking for ways to save energy costs in the buildings and in the dormitories, and we have cut a number of  budgetary areas and items that are not essential for conducting teaching and research activities. We very strictly monitor the use of our university-wide budget at the level of units and departments. For next year’s budget, however, it is clear that unless there is a miracle, some limitations of departmental activities across UCT Prague will be necessary. The cuts will affect a number of useful activities, but at this moment it seems to be unavoidable, unfortunately. At the same time, it is highly probable that the austerity measures will also affect the faculties. We must also look for new sources of financing, including more project funding, more cooperation with industrial partners, and increased commercial activities. That said, we must not succumb to panic; critical situations are opportunities for bold plans. Every problem has a solution, and the best solutions are created with a cool head. Let’s behave responsibly as we do at home, saving wherever we can.

This summer, Building B renovations were completed, and now UCT Prague is currently undergoing a major move, which logically brings with it problems and occasional dissatisfaction. Do you perceive this?

Of course, but everything must be seen in context. The commissioning of two floors facing the Zikova Street tract means an enormous increase in our spatial capacities, unprecedented in the recent history of UCT Prague. With this, we can finally relieve the long-standing overload and lack of space at a number of units and institutes, certainly outweighing the partial discomforts we are currently dealing with. I believe that a few months after the move, practically everyone involved will be happy about their new premises. It is a tremendous achievement that we could even complete the entire renovation at a time that brought with it a number of unexpected complications, including COVID and increases in the prices of building materials and contractors. After all, for some time there was even a threat that our suppliers would withdraw from their contracts and that the renovation would not be completed. Thanks to the move, work hygiene, fire protection, and work safety will improve. The progress from this point of view is tremendous. It is clear to me that the move itself is not pleasant, that some planned activities looked one way and reality has turned out differently. There is a big problem with sound insulation in some rooms, sometimes demanding adjustments or changes to be made. But I can promise that we are looking for a way to resolve everything as soon as possible.

Would you like to say anything else to students and staff before the start of the winter semester?

Let’s use this anniversary celebration time to look back and be proud of the achievements of chemists from UCT Prague. Let this legacy also be a source of inspiration and courage for us, so that we too can be equally successful, or even better, in the future. At the same time, despite all the negative things happening in the world today, let’s not lose our positive state of mind. Crises, even big ones, are a natural part of life. Let’s have courage, let’s not panic, and let’s try to overcome obstacles together. While it’s not pleasant for anyone to step out of their comfort zones, when we do so, we have the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. We have faced worse challenges in the past and we have overcome them. In closing, I will convey an encouraging quote in Latin attributed to either Publius Vergilius Maro or Publius Terentius Afer: Fortis fortuna adiuvat.

Updated: 9.9.2022 01:46, Author: Jan Kříž

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