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