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The War for Talents - innovation
Innovation could be considered from the talent side. How much do we know about the specific needs of the talented, gifted people who have a great variety of endowments? We asked prof. Péter Csermely, the Head of the Hungarian Genius Program.
Alica Árvay
Diplomacy&Trade online | March 28, 2011

THOUGH HE EARNED HIS PH. D. IN CHEMISTRY, he is a researcher interested in networks. He adapts his observations into practice while developing supporting network for talents and initiates programs, projects,joint efforts to do researches in the whole country. A most prolific scientist, he has published over 200 research papers, has been cited more than 4,500 times, organizes and visits workshops, conferences. He is the President of Cell Stress Society International, the Vice President of the Hungarian Biochemical Society, a member of the Wise Persons' Council of the Hungarian President. Professor Csermely received several national and international honors and awards, just to mention one, the 2004 Descartes Award of the European Union for Science Communication. He introduces himself as the odd man out.

As I read in your blog entry the reason for short term thinking is ’the small nation’effect. Instead of competence, tactics evolved like ’What we have adapt to today’, or ’what we have to do to survive’. How do you see the effect of this way of thinking on innovation and what is the way to the solutions?

Indeed, as I detailed in my blog, www.csermelyblog.hu, short term thinking leads to a poor investment in social networking. When I want my reward today, I will not be able to extend my social network to unconventional directions,since they do not guarantee an immediate return. However, unconventional social links are often highly necessary for both the invention and spread of innovations. Therefore, short term thinking is dangerous for innovations not only because of the trivial effects: “I will not pay for idle thinking, when I have more urgent things to do”, but also due to the nature, how the entrepreneur or firm builds its social network. This drawback of innovativity can be diminished by direct and indirect efforts. Learning and practicing innovative networking may make a direct effect. The increase of social trust (which sank to historically low level in the last decade in Hungary) is a must for long-term improvement.

How do you explain the place of talent in the social network?
A talented person is always someone who is different. A talent often sees the world differently, and thinks about the world differently. Not surprising then that talents often have a peculiar position in social networks. First of all: the network position of talents is central. This is due to their thrust for novelty. If I am a member of a circle of five friends, then very soon I am hearing the same stories again and again. If I choose five persons as
acquaintances from five different groups, then I will be able to pick up five times as many different stories. Talents intentionally choose the central persons of friendship circles. A central person (who is a local hub in the social network) knows practically everything, which is known by her neighborhood, and therefore makes the rest of the group ignorable. This releases energy for the talent to discover a new group. Talents often change their position in the social network. A real talent (think about Pal Erdos, the famous mathematician, who traveled all around the world to get involved in the solution of novel and novel problems) is the most unpredictable member of her smaller or bigger society. Such unpredictability is a nightmare in “business as usual” situations, since it is unreliable. However, the same unpredictability becomes a life insurance in times of a challenge, danger, stress, or crisis. The 21st century makes such unusual situations so general that crisis became now our “business as usual” pattern.

You are the keynote speaker of a conference this year which focuses on the impact of talent development on economic growth. What are the keywords of global answer and the differences regarding Hungary?

Currently we are in the middle of World War Three. This is a war for talents. Talents became essential for economic growth not only because of the special expertise of their giftedness, but also because of the highly original, surprising solutions they find to solve the novel challenges. Here comes the advantage of Hungary. Hungarians have been accommodated to survive crisis after crisis from the birth of this country more than a thousand years ago. Unexpectedly novel solutions are a commonplace here. This habit was rather a burden, when the country had to get accustomed to Western standards of the modern industrial world twenty years ago. However, the very same habit will be a treasure in the rest of this century, when mankind has to find entirely novel answers to challenges never seen before.

Why do you think Hungary is only among the so called catching-up countries?
Hungary has a Janus-face regarding talent. Many segments of the Hungarian education have extremely high standards and traditions. EU reports list the “supply side”, such as the number of scientists, the quality of public research institutes, etc. rather high in Hungary. Similarly to this evaluation a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the USA (vol. 106, p. 10.570) ranked Hungary as 19th of all countries regarding the complexity of its world-trade patterns, which reflects a wide capabilitybase producing a large variety of goods.

However, all this promising richness in giftedness is not reflected either in gross economic productivity, or in final innovation products even in a per capita basis. What is missing? Venture capital availability is certainly one of the factors evaluated as a bottleneck in the EU reports. I may also add the lack of cooperation, the low level of social
trust and the improper evaluation of risks.

The President of European Council, Herman Van Rompuy’s speech included a kind of sensitive issue that the EU would want to have the next generation of Hungarian scientists stay in their homeland. What are the most important conditions to fulfill the requirements for that?
We agree: we want to call talents back to Hungary after their successful studies abroad. It is not only a question of money, like the very well received “Lendulet” (Momentum) Program of Mr. Jozsef Palinkas, the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences providing adequate funds for talented young scientists to return to Hungary. It is also a question of the social network the talent leaves, when going abroad, and receives when returns. The nationwide talent support program for high school students (www.kutdiak.hu) is running from 1996, and received the EU Descartes award for its achievements providing top research opportunities for more than ten thousand 16 to 18 years old students. This program gives to the young talents a lot of possibilities to show their results and to build their social networks. Though this was not the primary aim of the initiative, we already have several ‘research student families’, which shows the strength of social ties, these talented students enjoy with their peers. The passing years also showed that these young researchers do return home with a much better chance than others. Brain-re-gain can, indeed be helped by early talent networks.

What are the most urgent steps to develop talent fostering?
There are excellent talent support programs throughout Europe. However, most of these programs are working alone, and are not part of a mutually cooperating and helping talent support network. This leads to a very high importance of personal contacts in developing talents. Thousands and thousands of gifted children living in small villages, in underprivileged Roma or broken families, remain undiscovered. This is not only morally unacceptable, but also wastes such reserves, which would be essential to meet the novel challenges of this talent careers often break. The talented child changes town or school, and no information are carried over on her talent to the new place. She may not have the perseverance to fight for her recognition again and again. Many times the success of well-developed talents is prevented just at the last step: the talent is unable to make proper contacts with the ‘industry’, with the entrepreneurs, who may convert her superb skills to a profit for all. In 2008 we started a 20-years-long nationwide talent support program, called Hungarian Genius Program (www.geniuszportal.hu) to change this trend.

Who can be competent of handling the whole process?
The fact that talents don’t realize their potential is only one side of the problem. Are there programs developed aiming at the whole? Teachers are key players in the recognition of talents. In the Hungarian Genius Program (www.geniuszportal.hu) we trained more than ten thousand teachers within one year to be aware of the hallmarks of talents, and to arrange an adequate help via the nationwide support network developed. Psychologists are needed to recognize hidden gifts and to help to overcome the frustrations a talent often experiences. The importance of family support can not be overestimated. However, pediatricians, nurses, neighbors, and later: entrepreneurs, business angels, and many others also play a key role. As a sum, we need talent support communities both locally and as a network transversing the entire Europe.

What effect has the present status of talent fostering in Hungary on the weight of our values?
According to the evaluation of Prof. Franz Monks, the honorary chairman of the European Council of High Ability, Hungary has nowadays the best nationwide integrated program of talent support in Europe. We are proud of the 400 Talent Points (and this number is increasing each week) helping talents to recognize and develop their abilities; the hundreds of Talent Days informing teachers and parents of the novel possibilities; and the grass-root established Talent Support Councils organizing local support options, as well as the cooperation of whole areas, like that of mathematical, musical, or carpenter talents.
Values of enthusiastically pursued high-quality work, perseverance, proper risk taking, Big-Thinking, long-term planning and cooperation are all promoted by talent fostering in Hungary. The idea of talent support networks spreads: our initiative to hold a European Talent Day (www.TalentDay.eu) was picked up by 8 EU member states so far. We most welcome talent support communities to join this net, and share their good practices.

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