Last year, the Central European University relocated to Vienna. Researchers like Martin Kahanec are already making international waves.
Growing up in the small town of Roznava in the eastern part of what was then a Soviet Czechoslovakia, Martin Kahanec was raised in a family that believed that education, knowledge and perseverance are what matter, values that have guided his academic and professional life.
A Professor of Public Policy at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Kahanec is also Acting Dean at the university’s new campus in Vienna. In addition, he is founder and scientific director of CELSI in Bratislava; member of the national COVID-19 Economic Crisis
Management Council at the Ministry of Finance of Slovakia and member of the minister’s advisory council, not to mention a member of the scientific board of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
Then there are all his previous positions in government, education and research across the continent. But to linger on past achievements is something Kahanec isn’t very interested in. He asked me to drop the “Professor” during our conversation over Zoom, as he talked about a recent study he conducted in Slovakia on mass antigen testing (MAT). With the mass testing campaign conducted last fall, he hoped to get an accurate picture of the incidence of coronavirus cases in the country. Along with a team at the CEU, Kahanec conducted further tests on selected communities.
“In the social sciences, we like to look at events that have a random, experimental element to them,” he explained. “[The pandemic] created an opportunity to discover the causal impact of mass testing as a policy instrument on the spread of the disease, both on its prevalence and its reproductive rate.”
Testbed for a New Approach
Using several communities in Slovakia, Kahanec looked at the effects of frequent testing. He found that in the two weeks between the first and second wave of testing, the incidence of the disease had decreased by 25-30% and the reproduction rate by 0.3. However, this was only the first step. He would not recommend MAT yet, he told me. “Yes there may be some benefits, but it is temporary,” he said. “A cross benefit analysis is needed on whether it is the best use of resources. We are not against or for it until we know more.”
So where did this curiosity and drive come from? It had simply been a part of his life and the culture he grew up in, perhaps even a genetic one, passed on through the generations. “My great grandparents went to the US to make money, and then came back and started a business in Slovakia,” he recounted. It’s a history of larger ambition. “I never saw myself staying in my town. That’s why I then moved to Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Toulouse, but the plan was always to converge back to Bratislava.”
Indeed, like his ancestors, he has lived and worked abroad before settling back in his homeland. He chose economics and the study of migration through a desire to make a difference. The antigen testing study gave him a chance to try to and help people whose jobs had been affected by the pandemic.
“You need an inner motivation and a bigger goal that goes beyond positive feedback. In my case, as naïve as it may sound, it was making positive change in your community, your country, in Europe.” This is the lesson he tries to instill in his students at the CEU. “The goal was not to become the dean of a school; that just happened along the way. The bigger goal was to make a positive change. This is something we teach our kids, to learn practical skills in order to make change happen.”
But he warns that it’s not been easy to get to where he is. “It’s a lot of studying, learning and asking questions about yourself and how things can be improved. It’s important to talk to people and learn from your peers. The path toward success is paved in failures. And it’s not measured by how many times you fail, but how many times you can get up and still carry on. Failures are an integral part of any endeavor.”
Now, like the rest of us, Martin Kahanec is spending most of his time in home office due to COVID-19 restrictions. So for now, teaching is remote, and Vienna and Budapest are a lot farther away.