Ma­te­ri­als for sci­en­tific suc­cess

A cen­tre for the study of nan­otech­nolo­gies and chem­i­cals in the Czech Repub­lic has be­come a highly re­spected re­search hub

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPIN­ION -

IN 2010, the Re­gional Cen­tre of Ad­vanced Tech­nolo­gies and Ma­te­ri­als – part of the fac­ulty of science at Palacký Univer­sity in Olo­mouc – was es­tab­lished, along with 47 other sci­en­tific cen­tres in the Czech Repub­lic.

It was the re­sult of €20 mil­lion in fund­ing from the Euro­pean Union’s Op­er­a­tional Pro­gramme Re­search and De­vel­op­ment for In­no­va­tions frame­work, which aimed to de­velop re­gions of the coun­try other than the cap­i­tal Prague. Since then, the cen­tre, known as the RCPTM, has grown to em­ploy 140 schol­ars, and has pub­lished be­tween 250 and 300 re­search pa­pers per year in jour­nals in­clud­ing Science and Na­ture.

In the past two years, half of the cen­tre’s pa­pers have boasted an im­pact fac­tor of more than five, with around 100 rated seven or higher. Re­search into how sil­ver nanopar­ti­cles might re­store the ef­fi­ciency of an­tibi­otics against re­sis­tant bac­te­ria, and the use of car­bon dots in bio­med­i­cine, and graphene mag­netism, have been mak­ing head­lines.

It is a big achieve­ment for a cen­tre which, just eight years ago, did not ex­ist, and which is based in a pic­turesque but largely un­known city lo­cated around 150 miles from Prague.

Ac­cord­ing to Radek Zbořil, gen­eral direc­tor of the cen­tre, it is not sur­pris­ing that Olo­mouc is prob­a­bly not the first name on peo­ple’s lips when nam­ing key hubs for re­search into nan­otech­nolo­gies, ma­te­ri­als science, chem­istry, physics and op­tics. How­ever, he be­lieves there are many rea­sons why it has be­come such an at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion. The cen­tre now em­ploys peo­ple from about 20 coun­tries, with roughly 25 per cent of its sci­en­tists from out­side the Czech Repub­lic.

“This in­cludes PhD stu­dents, ju­nior re­searchers, se­nior re­searchers, group lead­ers and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sors – they are all in­volved in teach­ing and re­search ac­tiv­i­ties. This makes us quite ex­cep­tional in the Czech sci­en­tific mar­ket,” says Zbořil.

“Olo­mouc is a very beau­ti­ful and his­tor­i­cal city, and like much of the Czech Repub­lic, the liv­ing costs here are very low. I think this is very at­trac­tive to our in­ter­na­tional em­ploy­ees. We can pay salaries that com­pare well with the rest of Europe, and there is high qual­ity re­search with state-of-the-art fa­cil­i­ties, but the costs of liv­ing are very low.”

While there are un­doubt­edly ad­van­tages to be­ing at the cen­tre of the tri­an­gle formed by three ma­jor Euro­pean cap­i­tals – Prague, Vi­enna and Bratislava – ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion is now less im­por­tant when it comes to con­duct­ing world-class re­search, Zbořil say “My per­sonal view is that I don’t be­lieve the suc­cess of any sci­en­tific cen­tre is dras­ti­cally de­pen­dent on the lo­ca­tion,” he says. “The role of trans­port in­fra­struc­ture is im­por­tant, but in my view, suc­cess­ful science is re­lated to ex­cel­lent sci­en­tists, their ideas and know-how, their ex­pe­ri­ence and their abil­ity to col­lab­o­rate with col­leagues both within the cen­tre and abroad.”

He says that the suc­cess of the RCPTM was down to what he called four “pil­lars of sus­tain­abil­ity”: main­tain­ing pub­li­ca­tion out­put; en­sur­ing ex­cel­lent grant ap­pli­ca­tion suc­cess; work­ing closely with in­dus­try to carry out and fund re­search; and recruiting high qual­ity aca­demics.

“There are three im­por­tant rea­sons why I think we are su­pe­rior to the other 47 cen­tres [es­tab­lished in the Czech Repub­lic in 2010],” says Zbořil. “The first is a high level of in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion and in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

In ad­di­tion to its in­ter­na­tional ap­proach to re­cruit­ment, the cen­tre has pub­lished in

‘In the past two years, half of the cen­tre’s pa­pers have boasted an im­pact fac­tor of more than five’

col­lab­o­ra­tion with 70 univer­sity part­ners, in­clud­ing the Univer­sity of Tokyo, Cor­nell Univer­sity, the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong and the Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Mu­nich. “The sec­ond as­pect that is re­ally quite unique is the level of in­vest­ment we put into our equip­ment,” says Zbořil. “Of our ini­tial €20 mil­lion grant, we in­vested 60 per cent into new state-ofthe-art fa­cil­i­ties and 20 per cent into the con­struc­tion of new build­ings.

“The third as­pect is a very tight in­ter­con­nec­tion of ex­cel­lent fun­da­men­tal re­search, ap­plied re­search and real trans­fer of tech­nolo­gies. I be­lieve per­son­ally that it is not pos­si­ble to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween those three things. In my long-term strat­egy, we of course want to con­tinue be­ing pub­lished in the best jour­nals, but we need to trans­fer our most promis­ing tech­nolo­gies into real com­mer­cial prac­tice.”

The ap­proach seems to be pay­ing off. Three of the top five most highly cited Czech re­searchers are as­so­ci­ated with the cen­tre, and it con­tin­ues to at­tract im­pres­sive lev­els of grant fund­ing.

In re­cent years, it has brought in more than €30 mil­lion from Euro­pean Struc­tural and In­vest­ment Funds and Hori­zon 2020, in­clud­ing the Euro­pean Re­search Coun­cil grant.

Zbořil hopes that the suc­cess his cen­tre is en­joy­ing on the in­ter­na­tional stage will start to reap re­wards for the lo­cal area, too. “What we achieve here at the cen­tre is a great ad­ver­tise­ment for this re­gion and for the city of Olo­mouc,” he says.

“There are now prod­ucts and tech­nol­ogy that started in Olo­mouc be­ing used in tens of sci­en­tific and in­dus­trial lab­o­ra­to­ries across the world – from the US, to Ger­many, China and South Africa. All these places now pur­chase our know-how, which is a great thing for Olo­mouc.”

De­vel­op­ment of first non-metal­lic mag­nets pub­lished by RCPTM sci­en­tists in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions has been se­lected by ed­i­tors as Na­ture’s 2017 graphene re­search picks

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