INTERVIEW WITH THE NEW DEAN By Klára Jiřičná
In March 2021, Prof. Patrick Van Damme became the second dean of the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences (FTA) but the first dean ever as a foreign national in the history of the Czech University of Life Sciences. A professor in tropical agronomy, Patrick Van Damme speaks 6 languages (and knows about a few more…) and is retiring later this year from his home university in Belgium, but has a lot of energy and plans to consolidate FTA´s international ranking and further develop its international mandate.
Prof. Patrick Van Damme of the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering at Ghent University, Belgium promises to bring in a shift towards more emphasis on contribution to society as an alternative to the current focus on number of published peer-reviewed articles in impact-factor, scientific journals."
You started here years ago and have taught here for a number of years. What brought you to the Czech Republic in the first place? And given your long relationship with FTA, what´s it like to be the new dean?
My first real contract with what was then the Institute of Tropics and Subtropics was in July 2012. But before that I had been here several times for classes on ethnobotany (2008-9), and also been asked to chair MSc thesis defence sessions. During one these, I was asked whether I would be interested to take up a professor position, which I accepted. Immediately after integrating the institute, my colleagues voiced the plan to turn the institute into a faculty. I was involved on elaborating this plan and also in naming the faculty. I had no formal or structural teaching activity; what I did was sometimes giving guest lectures on specific courses. I have covered quite some themes with different colleagues – from tropical crops through ethnobotany, rural development – it was pretty wide – microfinance -value chain and those things. I was also involved in coaching MSc or PhD students. At one instance, I offered to teach academic English – I saw that there was scope for improvement with a number of students – so I brought on the English language issue.
Ladislav Kokoška invited me - he was also teaching ethnobotany course - he was my first entry point here. I must say I was, and still am, pretty charmed by the culture here – this part of Europe was pretty unknown to me – and when I had Erasmus meetings in Poland or Romania – those were one-off visits. I thought Prague was an interesting entry point into this part of Europe and I enjoyed my stays here. Later on, the idea was introduced to me whether I would like to invest myself more in the internationalisation efforts of the faculty, and why not go for the position of dean. Of course, you had to be nominated first. Until now, we had a young dean – but I know that young people want to do research and teaching, and be active in many another ways, and I believe they should invest time in these, including in connecting with the public and provide service to society. I do not say you necessarily need to take an older man for the position of dean, but I think it is fair to say that I do not need to prove myself anymore, like to having another extra publication, this is covered. I often repeat this to others: now is the time for me to ‘deliver’, and contribute to society and the university, and thus also to the faculty. In Belgium, I have to retire at this age and I am ‘finished’. I am allowed to continue to monitor some of my PhD students but that’s it. I believe I can become part of a very interesting and vibrant community here – most of the staff here are at least twenty years younger – that´s a gap – but that´s the age when they are still maturing as academics, and can contribute most to science.
What are some new initiatives you would like to introduce as the new dean?
My own, initial idea was to contribute to the internationalisation of the faculty and through that help the whole university to be more outward looking. Let´s be frank, I graduated in 1979 and then I went immediately to IITA Nigeria*, then I took up a position with FAO in Senegal and afterwards, when I had started at Ghent University, I kept building contacts with lots of institutions and universities. I have thus created a vast network of contacts that the faculty/university could benefit from. It would be good to reflect on the strategic positioning of the countries which we should collaborate with, and maybe expand into new areas. We are already well-connected with Central Asia, in western Europe we do not have that – so this is a strategic advantage we should use – we could have a pivotal role in expanding on what we are already doing, so this is a big objective. At Ghent, I am the head of the so-called Africa Platform; we cater for interests of the African students studying at the university – we have between 400-500 students (most of them at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering). Through the platform, we help and assist them but we also work the other way around: we assist Belgian students and academics who want to do research in Africa and do not necessarily know how to go about that; we let them benefit of our contacts and help them in any way possible. I would like to align us with the international policy of the Czech government – the ODA policy** – to see with the government and relevant ministries what would be an interesting entry point for us. I appreciate that some of our colleagues are fluent in Spanish. In the past we wanted to build an Agroforestry course programme in Spanish – we have memorandums of understanding with Ecuador, we have our colleague Eloy who still has very firm contacts with St Cruz, Bolivia, so there is a lot that can be done on that side. Within Europe, we can strengthen what Petra Chaloupková built already with dr. Krepl (they were the first ‘Prague’ persons I ever met) at AGRINATURA; we can increase our visibility within AGRINATURA and involve ourselves a bit more in the international consortia of universities here in Europe. In doing so, we could hopefully attract more EU students through Erasmus.
On the research front, we can provide assistance to help people to write proposals, to encourage them. I would firmly lean on the respective vice-deans – I see the dean as being the first among equals, a primus inter pares. You form a team, and work as a team, although at the end of the day, the decisions should be made by the dean. I have some ideas on the evaluation system – which is still quite quantitative – whereas the current trend is to look at the quality of the papers, not just counting the numbers. Amongst other issues, evaluation should take into account one’s involvement in the community and society at large based on one’s research. Scientists should be proud of their achievements, and this should be considered together with the number of high-level publications. Ask academics not just to provide you with a list of publications, but have them tell you how they contribute to society. I believe we are gradually moving towards that – this approach is currently used in the Anglo-Saxon world and we have taken it up in Belgium, presumably it will become mainstream in the rest of the world: shift in approach and shift in mentality.
As you look back on your life, is there any pivotal moment that stands out? Any turning-point? When did you decide to become a scientist?
When I was 12 I wanted to go abroad and make documentaries about nature like David Attenborough. At that time, in 1968 it was still black and white – I saw the Amazon forest in black and white. Then I decided to become an agronomist – a choice between biology (too narrow – no applied side) and agriculture. My first position was at IITA (research on plant resistance against pests in cowpea), second was with FAO (extension on tomato growing in Senegal, but also field research on some 20 vegetables – local species and species form the north). Then my Ghent professor asked me to reintegrate his lab and I got into my PhD research. I enjoy research d– you find things you have not even been looking for – there is always something new. In most cases, you are discovering new things, new solutions, and the longer you work in a certain field, the better you become.
You are beginning your tenure at a point when the faculty enters new phases of its existence along with the new building – how does this moment resonate with you?
The new building is a real statement. It is very ecological – this building is worth visiting. Now that we have a building – it is first time that the whole faculty is in one location and I think this will increase the cohesion between different departments. I know some departments or research groups felt left out before, but now there is no excuse as we share the same location. I believe this is a bonus for the faculty. It will increase the collaboration and understanding of what we do. There is plenty of new infrastructure – labs are well-equipped – some are top-notch and better than what we have in Ghent. It’s like a new start. We are rather unique even in the world – TROPICAL AGRICULTURAL FACULTY: at best people had departments of tropical agriculture - it is another way of presenting ourselves to the world – solely devoted to tropical agriculture sensu lato. New building equals new enthusiasm.
With the climate change do you see growing significance of tropical agriculture in the CEE?
We had a really warm summer in Belgium. I was interviewed on several occasions by the media about Belgian farmers growing soy and quinoa. A number of Mediterranean crops have now come to the front. I am certain that also in Czech Republic in a few years’ time farmers will be growing a number of new crops that will be more drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant – a shift away from more traditional crops. When I was a student in the 70s we did not have any maize at all, it was first planted in 1975 (it is truly tropical crop coming from Mexico) my parents never saw it before. In Belgium, more than half of the crop area is grown with maize. I believe we will have an influx of subtropical crops. Two months ago, I saw that in Wageningen they started growing papaya (in greenhouses) and they were confident that they will make a profit. Our faculty is the prime suspect and reference to help introduce these new species – I think this is what we have to work on and communicate to the public
What do you see as your strengths/weaknesses as a foreigner coming to a Czech institution and culture?
I still dont’t speak Czech, and I know this a bit of a bummer, but I do have the intention to at least try to learn some Czech. I think at my age I will never be able to become fluent – but this weakness can become a strength if you link it to the internationalization, and the fact I am fluent in English and French. As I said, there is still some way to go on the language front: we have to work on the quality of the English here and also on the communication towards the outer world. With the public here it has to be in Czech but with the outside world h– if we want to attract foreign students they need to be able to communicate in an English-speaking environment. Coming from a different academic culture, I can hopefully bring new ideas and help change the current system. I have always thought that bringing in new blood from elsewhere allows the people working in whatever institution it is to reflect and see their reality from another viewpoint as well. I like when outsiders come to evaluate you – without being offensive – I will probably have other ideas than people who have been always working here. Having been working here for a number of years, I know some of the sensitivities. But, as it is, until now I have not been a firm part of the faculty – I did not get any diplomas here, whereas my involvement remained shallow – so there is a hiatus between the previous life and the one I can have now.
To the outer world, this is an interesting PR moment. It is in line with what our previous dean, Jan Banout, always said: “If you are a faculty that has an international vocation, it’s good to have a person coming from abroad to manage that kind of activity – to showcase the faculty and its activities”. We have to find ways to push this – to be more present in the media – make ourselves heard. I know a number of my colleagues go like: “Me? On the radio? No way, I am scientist” which is ridiculous, at the end of the day the money comes from the public, we are a public university, so we should show the public how their tax money is being used.