Academics in Poland raise the alarm over latest threat to academic freedom

07 Jun 2023 | News

The government withheld funding for a research institute after objecting to the views of one of its scholars. Researchers say this is an attempt ‘to intimidate scholars whose research might result in refutations of opinions held by some politicians’

Renowned Polish Holocaust scholar Barbara Engelking. Photo: Adrian Grycuk / Creative Commons

Academics in Poland have hit out against a government decision to withhold funding for the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, after the renowned Holocaust scholar and Director of the Polish Centre for Holocaust Research, Barbara Engelking said Polish Jews received little support from their fellow citizens in the Second World War.

The Institute lost approximately €180,000 after Engelking’s remarks were criticised by the education and science minister Przemysław Czarnek. The government will not fund a research institute that employs “people who slander Poles”, Czarnek said.

More 2,700 academics in Poland and abroad have signed a letter saying the minister’s statement on Engelking is a threat to the Institute and to academic freedom. “[It] can be seen as an attempt to intimidate scholars whose research might result in refutations of opinions held by some politicians,” the letter says.

“Minister Czarnek openly claimed that managing academia and its funding are his personal and private prerogatives, that he can do it disregarding procedure,” the signatories say, demanding and end to “threats and financial blackmail which limit constitutional freedom of academic research.”

Czarnek retorted that his department will look into the universities that employ the academics who signed the letter, and will react.

The incident, sparked when Engelking was interviewed about her research in April during commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, attracted the attention of the European Parliament. A delegation of MEPs who visited Poland in May concluded that academic and media freedom are under attack by the Polish government.

Sabine Verheyen MEP who led the delegation, said a meeting with Czarnek “confirmed how the Polish government has moved away from EU standards,” According to Polish media reports, Czarnek told the MEPs, "I fund what I want to fund”.

Andrzej Rychard, director of the Sociology Institute, told Science|Business that at the first glance, it seemed the government’s decision to withhold the funding cannot be legally challenged because the institute was simply omitted. However, after seeking legal advice, the institute developed a step-by-step plan to claw back the missing funds.

While not disclosing any details, Rychard noted it is the responsibility of the state to fund institutions engaged in essential and advanced research in social sciences and humanities.

The education ministry said in a statement that Polish law does not guarantee additional funding for individual scientific institutions. “It is also incomprehensible to expect that these limited funds will go to an institution whose prominent representatives use their scientific authority to formulate statements insulting Polish people," the statement says. The ministry has not replied to a Science|Business request for further comments.

Maciej Żylicz, president of the executive board at the Foundation for Polish Science said funding decisions should be based on the established evaluation procedures, not political decisions. The government’s decision to withhold funding may be against the law. “The minister should not interfere, he is not an expert, especially in this field, which is extremely difficult,” Żylicz said.

In a statement published on Tuesday the Czech Academy of Sciences said the budget cuts in Poland are an attempt to undermine the autonomy of research institutes and universities. “Any scientific research carried out in accordance with ethical principles and social responsibility must be supported by freedom to communicate one's own results, regardless of discipline,” the academy said.

Conflict resolution

Żylicz said the president of the academy of sciences Marek Konarzewski is in talks with the ministry to find a way out of the impasse, adding society at large needs to help the Sociology Institute to survive. “We should go and spread the information and protest so that the minister [can] see what the attitude of the scientific community is,” Żylicz said.

For its part, the EU should ensure information about scientific freedom principles and standards for conducting research are communicated widely, said Żylicz

Rychard said that the situation facing Sociology Institute has attracted the interest of EU and Polish MEP Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz has put down a formal parliamentary question regarding the case.

Meanwhile, the Institute has started a fundraising campaign. Rychard noted that contributions are important not only for financial reasons, but also as a display of solidarity with the Institute and researchers affected by government interference. “We all perfectly understand that this is not the case of one researcher,” he said.

Declining academic freedom

The Academic Freedom Index published in March 2022 by Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, shows Poland has seen a decline in academic freedom in recent years. The downward trend began in 2015, coinciding with the rise to power of the governing Law and Justice party.

A report on academic freedom by the European Parliament, published at the end of March, indicated a slight deterioration in academic freedom in Poland, as well as Greece.

The report concludes that Polish academics have become increasingly concerned that the government’s push for conservative nationalist narratives is threatening academic freedom.

Despite the missing funding, Rychard emphasised that the Sociology Institute continues all of its projects. “We haven't changed our research plans and research programs, even by the millimetre. We continue to do what we were doing,” he said.

The sanction against the Sociology Institute should be viewed against a broader canvass of moves by the government that are perceived as a potential threat to academic freedom.

There is particular angst about moves to establish a special commission to investigate “Russian influence” which academics who have collaborated with Russian counterparts think could draw them into its net.

Indeed, Czarnek has criticised academics who expressed concerns about the commission, which would investigate Russian influence across various public and private institutions between 2007 and 2022.

Critics believe the commission is aimed at Donald Tusk, former prime minister and former president of the Council of the EU, and currently the main opposition leader in Poland who has a chance to topple the current government in elections later this year. Last Sunday, Tusk spoke in front of 500,000 people who gathered in Warsaw to protest against the Russian influence commission.

On 8 June the European Commission opened an infringement procedure by sending a letter of formal notice to Poland for violations of EU law. This follows a thorough assessment by the Commission of the new law on the State Committee for the Examination of Russian influence on the internal security of Poland between 2007 and 2022.

Czarnek has referred to opponents of the bill as "pseudo professors". In response, Gasiuk-Pihowicz said the education minister is offending scientists and his statements could harm the independence of Polish academia.

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