SoMoPro: Sugaring the pill for international researchers

South Moravia is in the forefront of a European-funded project which is bringing top researchers to the Moravian capital, Brno.

Jedním z elitních center v Brně, která potřebují špičkové světové výzkumníky, má být Středoevropský technologický institut (CEITEC). V něm se vědci budou věnovat i testování vzorků v ultravakuovém prostředí. | na serveru Lidovky.cz | aktuální zprávy Jedním z elitních center v Brně, která potřebují špičkové světové výzkumníky, má být Středoevropský technologický institut (CEITEC). V něm se vědci budou věnovat i testování vzorků v ultravakuovém prostředí. | foto: © CEITECČeská pozice
Jedním z elitních center v Brně, která potřebují špičkové světové výzkumníky, má být Středoevropský technologický institut (CEITEC). V něm se vědci budou věnovat i testování vzorků v ultravakuovém prostředí.

What have Arman Taghavi-Chabert, Jana Křenková, Albano Carlo Meli or Pavel Babica and another 23 researchers from top worldwide academic institutions in common? Answer: They have been seduced to the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno, thanks to the SoMoPro (South Moravian Program for Distinguished Researchers)  for which the South Moravian regional authority has earmarked Kč 100 million until the end of 2013.

Thanks to the program,  doctoral scientists from Britain’s Oxford University and King’s College, London, and top US establishments, Columbia University and Berkeley with promising research projects are pushing ahead with their work on Czech soil.

The two rounds of calls so far have already results in support for 27 projects with an average duration of 30 months. “At the moment we have asked for co-financing from the European Commission, should we be successful we will be able to carry out a third and fourth round ” manager of the South Moravian Center for International Mobility (JCMM), Eva Janů, told Czech Position.

The center administers the funds used to entice international researchers in the fields of natural science, medicine and technical areas, namely Czechs with a doctorate and more than three years work experience abroad and foreigners with four years work experience. ‘I wanted to dedicate myself to research full-time and was looking for an institution where I could realize that desire.’

One of the stars drawn to Brno is the mathematician Arman Taghavi-Chabert.  “It was really quite unexpected. I finished a doctorate on the so-called Twistors theory in 2010 and at the time was teaching at one of the Oxford faculty’s. I wanted to dedicate myself to research full-time and was looking for an institution where I could realize that desire. I started by getting in touch with some well  known researchers and one of them was Jan Slovák of Masaryk University in Brno. Because he is an expert in parabolic geometry, a field close to mine, we felt that cooperation would be advantageous. He recommended I seek a grant from SoMoPro and we went for it,” said the native Iranian.

Name your price

Researchers can propose their pay rates themselves but have to be able to justify them, a unique facet of the project. Such justification is usually based on research results so far and the amount paid at the previous institution. “After deductions, last year the average personnel costs was €3,740 gross per month, which comes to a net wage of €2,770,” said the JCMM manager.

The grants can cover researchers’ housing costs, a contribution towards research costs at the host institution, for example, Masaryk University, Brno University of Technology, Mendel University or the Academy of Sciences. SoMoPro is the sole Czech project in this area which benefits from European Commission joint funding through the COFUND program.

And what can Brno offer an Oxford graduate? “For me, as a mathematician, the quality of the mathematics from the research staff is the most important thing,” commented Taghavi-Chabert, who has been in Brno since January. Originally, he received a three-month post-doctoral stipendium but that was extended to a whole two years thanks to SoMoPro.

Would he recommend other British scientists follow in his footsteps? “It’s always recommended that you switch to another institution than the one where you were educated — it broadens the mind. I had never been to the Czech Republic and did not know what to expect. I did not even how time to ponder about that. … But really, after three months in Brno I have really positive impressions and I can say that my research has benefited from the change. And because I am still interested in a number of projects at my original university, I can expect long term cooperation between Brno and Oxford. I believe that there will be a follow-up, ” Taghavi-Chabert explained.

The second round call targeted researchers from top rank institutions. The trawl brought chemist Jana Křenková from the University of California, Berkeley, to Brno’s Masaryk University. Like Oxford, it is ranked in the world’s top 10 academic institutions. Albano Carlo Meli came from Columbia University, Iva Sovadinová and botanist Pavel Babica returned from Michigan.

Appraisals are overwhelmingly positive according to JCMM’s Janů. Researchers and their hosts above all applaud the freedom enjoyed in selection of research topics, financial independence, and the opportunity to get high prized contacts for putting together research consortia. ‘Every day I can speak to really top-grade people in the field, with people whose names are on the covers of the textbooks.’  

Kamil Paruch, now carrying out research at Masaryk University, returned home after four years in the US. He studied at Columbia University and that was followed by research at international pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough. “Every day I can speak to really top-grade people in the field, with people whose names are on the covers of the textbooks,” he told the magazine Science last year which described the return of researchers to Central Europe.

Paruch, a father of two, was partly prompted to come back for family reasons but he also wants to foster contacts between Czech chemists and large corporations. His own specialist field is in compounds that can battle cancer.

Departure from dubious grants

“SoMoPro is an excellent program which is helping draw really quality post doctoral trainees to the region and without it there would be no funding for this. It could be a real pathfinder in the Czech context where start-up grants are painfully lacking for debutant researchers to start up independent and functional teams,” Paruch told the weekly Euro last year. “The current system of grants, which with respect to some agencies are distributed in a not very transparent way, and potentially in a corrupt way, frequently lead to frustration and demotivation.” 

According to Paruch, the apparently high wages, by Czech standards, made possible by SoMoPro are not out of the ball park given international  comparison. They are, however, giving Brno an edge in attracting top researchers in what is a tough competitive environment.

Neighboring regions are now looking to copy SoMoPro’s success. Prague’s Charles University is working with a private consultancy company to draw up its application and Slovakia is looking to make its own bid for EU co-financing funds, according to Janů. And she believes that more will be joining them.