Poland backs embattled science funding agency but warns of need for ‘transparency’

16 Apr 2024 | News

Two ministers in the new Polish government tell Science|Business how they intend to improve research and innovation and discuss plans for the national funding agency, which is currently operating under the cloud of a corruption investigation

Maria Mrówczyńska, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Photo credits: Service of the Republic of Poland

Poland’s government maintains a strong backing for its main innovation funding agency, the National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR), following a turbulent period for the agency which is being investigated for corruption and was threatened with closure by the previous government. 

Police last year launched an inquiry into the agency after just two companies were awarded 22% of the overall funding of a €174 million call backed by EU funds. NCBR has denied any wrongdoing and said it will fully cooperate with Poland’s anti-corruption bureau (CBA). 

Alongside this, the country’s former science and education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, threatened to close both the NCBR and the main basic funding institute, the National Science Centre (NCN), with the intention of creating one new overarching agency. This met with protest from Poland’s scientific community. 

Czarnek’s Law and Justice party lost the parliamentary elections in October last year and the new government, led by Donald Tusk, is taking a different approach. Maria Mrówczyńska, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, told Science|Business that the NCBR is “pivotal”, especially as a link between research and the general economy. 

“There is no need to liquidate this kind of institution,” she said. “The NCBR has been very important for the digitisation of universities and it largely supports young scientists, and its leadership programme is very important, especially given that we as a country still struggle with democratic problems.”

Despite this support, the agency is not out of the woods. In addition to the CBA investigation, scores of other companies that benefited from the same fast-track grant scheme are now facing financial difficulties because small accounting errors on their grant applications mean they may have technically breached grant agreements and might have to pay back money they were awarded

The errors are mainly down to companies not declaring overdue tax or insurance payments. Some companies have stated that if they have to pay back the funds they received, they could go bankrupt. 

Mrówczyńska said the government is assessing the situation on a case-by-case basis. “There might be a situation in which some companies might not get the funds, especially when they have not observed the terms and conditions of their project,” she said. 

The tightening of controls on grants is part of the government’s push to bring more transparency to its funding agencies. In January NCBR was integrated into the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, which promised greater oversight of its activities. 

“We want this institution to be a pivotal support for universities in transferring knowledge to the economy, and we want this institution to be supportive of universities, but it needs to take place in a framework of transparency,” Mrówczyńska said. 

A return to two ministries

Tusk’s newly elected government has wasted little time in reshaping the country’s political landscape, including big changes to the research and academic sector. Earlier this year it re-established the Ministry of Science and HIgher Education after it had been merged with the Ministry of Education under the previous government. 

That irked the country’s researchers, who felt that science did not get the attention it needed. Many of the country’s leading scientists and science organisations lobbied for a return to separate ministries. 

Andrzej Szeptycki, vice minister of research and higher education, speaking alongside Mrówczyńska, told Science|Business, “The R&I sector was lost within this one single ministry because it focused more on forming political views of young people and not on developing new technologies or supporting SMEs. 

“[Separating the ministries] allows us to focus much more on science, on innovation and higher education. Also, the budgetary situation is clearer with this division.”

Poland’s EU cash injection

Poland’s R&I performance lags far behind Europe’s big hitters. Among the reasons for this is under-investment, with only 1.4% of GDP devoted to research and development activities. That is far below the EU average of 2.22%, and puts the country at 14th in the EU27. In innovation, Poland is fourth from bottom in the EU Innovation Scoreboard, ahead of just Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia. 

“The level of allocated funds for science is far from satisfactory, both from the perspective of the ministry and from the perspective of universities and researchers,” Mrówczyńska said. 

She did not comment on how Poland could increase its R&I spending to 3% of its GDP – a long standing target of EU countries – but did say that steps are being taken more generally. For example, the government recently approved a €46 million increase to the NCN’s 2024 budget. 

Mrówczyńska also hopes the freshly unlocked €137 billion in EU funds – unfrozen after wider political reforms – can help the country boost R&I. 

“Before these funds were unfrozen, we had a very significant deficit of funds in the area of science and higher education,” Mrówczyńska said. “This was reflected in the fact that very few companies were willing to take up collaboration with both research institutes and universities, so these funds will be a very important financial boost for research institutes and the whole economy.”

She said that the funds will be used to improve knowledge transfer between researchers and industry, to develop academics’ soft skills, for the country’s green transition and eventually to digitalise university systems.

“Unfrozen EU funds will not make us spend 3% of our GDP on science, but …it gets us closer to this threshold,” she said. 

This article is the second of two looking at Poland’s R&I landscape following last year’s general election and the re-establishment of a separate ministry for science and higher education. Read about the country’s position on the future of European research and dual-use technologies in part one here.

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