Audit uncovers ‘corruption mechanisms’ at Polish research funding agency

18 Oct 2023 | News

Poland’s Supreme Audit Office reported ‘alarming’ irregularities in the allocation of funds by the national research funding agency

Irregularities have been discovered in grants distributed by Poland's National Centre for Research and Development. Photo: Kamil Tracz / Flickr

Poland’s Supreme Audit Office (NIK) has reported finding “numerous irregularities” in the distribution of grants by the National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR) in a fast-track call for digital innovation that was co-funded by the EU.

The report says the irregularities “indicate the existence of corruption mechanisms in NCBR” and called the audit results “alarming”, pointing to an “enormous problem related to the reliability of spending EU funds.”

A day before auditor’s report was published, NCBR published a statement, saying it operates “transparently and in accordance with applicable regulations” and that “All funds in the Fast Track - Digital Innovations call implemented in 2022 were spent in accordance with the law to beneficiaries who implement projects on the basis of contracts signed with NCBR.” The agency added that it is an “apolitical institution and should not be an entity used in an election campaign for any party.”

The call results, published in December 2022, showed that of 434 applications, 117 projects qualified for financing. Out of the winning bids, two companies stood out, as they were to receive more than 20% of the entire budget. After opposition politicians questioned the distribution of funds, Poland’s anti-corruption bureau (CBA) launched an investigation, and the Ministry of Funds and Regional Policy carried out an inspection, verifying all projects entitled for funding.

According to the audit, NCBR was obliged to remove four projects that were incorrectly reinstated for review after not passing the initial selection process; one project that did not meet all the evaluation criteria; and 12 projects deemed inconsistent with the call criteria by external experts. Additionally, two applicants withdrew from signing the co-financing agreement.

NCBR’s press office told Science|Business that the ranking list was last updated on 4 August. As a result, 102 projects qualified for a total of €122 million.

The auditor’s report pointed out that NCBR changed the call regulations twice. On the last day of applications, the agency extended the deadline for several hours, citing technical issues due to high interest in the call. During the assessment process, NCBR increased the call budget to €183 million from an initial €146 million. According to NCBR, the increase was due to the high quality of submitted projects.  

The auditor said that irregularities occurred at various stages of the call, including its preparation, the application process, and project selection. It pointed to a lack of transparency in selecting experts for panel discussions, failure to notify individual applicants about changes in regulations, and no indication of the exchange rate that would apply to convert Polish currency into euros.

NIK stressed the irregularities are particularly alarming because NCBR is participating in the distribution of about €8 billion in the coming years under the European Funds for a Modern Economy Programme. In May, NCBR disclosed the European anti-fraud office (OLAF) had also launched an investigation over potential financial irregularities.  OLAF and CBA declined to comment, citing ongoing investigation procedures.

Marcin Pałys, the former rector of the University of Warsaw told Science|Business the biggest challenge for NCBR is dealing with the reputational blow. “It should now focus on regaining the credibility of an institution that funds research ethically. In addition, there is a need for higher transparency regarding the criteria for awarding funding and the evaluation of related risks,” Pałys said.

According to NCBR, the research funding agency has already made “a number of corrective actions” during the ongoing investigation, relating to updating the procedure describing the process of selecting experts to assess applications for funding in NCBR’s calls for proposals. “Moreover, NCBR takes every effort to ensure no shortcomings in terms of deadlines, failure to immediately and individually notify each applicant about changes to the regulations, as well as lack of public disclosure of the justification for changes to the regulations,” NCBR said.

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