The FZU's P4F Project: Advancing the Frontiers of Physics

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The Institute of Physics (FZU) of the Czech Academy of Sciences hosted a major event on September 14, welcoming 130 participants to a kick-off meeting of Physics for Future. The central mission of this Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND project is to recruit 60 exceptionally talented postdoctoral researchers.

The hybrid meeting opened with a keynote address by FZU Director Michael Prouza, explaining the significance of this initiative for the institute and the wider scientific community. He was followed by the President of the Czech Academy of Sciences Eva Zažímalová. After the introductions, attendees had the opportunity to hear testimonials from MSCA fellows Ladislav Straka, Irene Villa, and Gizem Şengör who shared their experiences and insights on the valuable contributions of the MSCA program to research.

In his speech, Director Prouza outlined the path taken to the successful acquisition of European projects, noting this is a story of resilience and adaptation, especially in recent years. The FZU had to grapple with budget cuts to critical infrastructures programs, the discontinuation of the Ministry of Education's Inter-Excellence program, and the end of the previous Operational Structural Program (OP RDE). These fiscal constraints necessitated creative approaches to securing alternative funding.

Much like all other academic institutions, the FZU's economic situation was further affected by double-digit inflation, limited growth of the Czech Academy of Sciences’ budget, and soaring energy costs that exacerbated the financial strain. Acquiring national funding thus became an uphill battle, with physics-related applications submitted to the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic achieving a success rate of a mere 12% in the category of standard grants.

To face these mounting challenges, the FZU embarked on a strategic reorientation, shifting its focus towards European projects that presented a promising lifeline during a turbulent time. This change also paved the way for other academic institutes to explore analogous opportunities. “In 2022, more than half of the gained financial resources of the Czech Academy of Sciences  from international grants was generated by our institute, but it was still less than 10% of our budget.” Prouza explained.

The FZU’s relative success in securing European project funding was attributed to three factors: meticulous preparation, a team of exceptional scientists, and the dedicated efforts of the FZU's Grant Office. Notably, the FZU was awarded two new European Research Council (ERC) projects: Tim Verhagen was awarded an ERC Starting Grant, and Tomáš Jungwirth secured an Advanced ERC Grant. The institute’s achievements went beyond the ERC projects to include active involvement in two European Innovation Council Pathfinder initiatives and also did not rely only on European funding – i.e. by securing funding for two Dioscuri centres, which are financed by 50 % from the resources of German Max-Planck Society. 

“It is essential to note that the support of the Czech Academy of Sciences is integral to the FZU’s efforts. My colleagues and I are in an exceptional situation in the European milieu as our institutional funding is just 30% of our annual operational budget and just 10% of the investment budget. That means we really need to work very hard to obtain the remaining 70% for operations or 90% for investments,” Prouza reasoned.

President of the Czech Academy of Sciences Professor Eva Zažímalová praised the FZU’s work and acknowledged the undeniable importance of the Physics for Future project for Czech science and the global physics community. “I am confident this project will establish a solid foundation for the future. I use the term "solid" not just metaphorically, but also quite literally as we are meeting in a building called SOLID,“ Zažímalová said.

European funds, Zažímalová emphasized, are of immense significance for scientific research in the Czech Republic, particularly given reduced local institutional funding and rising inflation. She added that the support of European funds is invaluable is for Czech research institutes. However, Zažímalová noted that although these projects may be instrumental in funding postdoctoral salaries, institutions still had to deal with additional expenses such as those for travel, research materials, open access publishing or costs of secondments. Acknowledging these challenges, she expressed the hope the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport would consider supporting analogous co-financing projects, potentially through operational funds such as the Programme Johannes Amos Comenius.

In closing, Director Prouza optimistically remarked that the "P4F – Physics for Future" project represents an opportunity for the FZU to contribute to the future of physics research.