Poland’s election result sparks hope for brighter future for science and research

18 Oct 2023 | News

With former president of the European Council Donald Tusk set to lead a coalition government, academics eye fundamental changes in the long-term strategy for science, greater academic freedom and more research funding

Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Coalition (KO), is in pole position to be Poland's next prime minister following Sunday's election. Photo: Donald Tusk / Twitter (X)

Academics in Poland say the election result could help research and higher education move towards a greater degree of academic freedom, better dialogue with the scientific community, and a gradual resolution of enduring problems in the sector.

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) won the most votes for a single party, but failed to secure a parliamentary majority in the high stakes parliamentary election on Sunday. Opposition leader Donald Tusk told supporters that “this is the end of PiS rule”.

The ruling party won 35.4% of the vote, which translates to 194 seats out of 460 in the lower house of parliament, according to results released by the Electoral Commission on Tuesday. Opposition parties, led by the liberal Civic Coalition (KO), won 248 seats, with the KO winning 30.7% of the vote. The turnout was more than 74%, a record high in post-communist elections.

Lucyna Woźniak, vice rector for research strategy and international relations at the Medical University of Lodz, stressed a need for a medium and long-term policy for higher education, better financing of the research and education sector, and higher consistency of the Polish funding system with the EU programmes. Marcin Pałys, the former rector of the University of Warsaw, said the election outcome gives a chance of improved dialogue between the Minister of Higher Education and the academic communities.

Woźniak said two different visions of the country presented during the election campaign were crucial to young people, who turned out to vote in much larger numbers than in previous elections. “We stand at a crossroads where we can either advance towards embracing open science, a more open and interconnected society, fostering mobility and collaboration in joint projects, or choose a more local and self-centered path,” she said speaking before the election. Woźniak added that another important aspect is the position of the younger generation, especially young women, who must decide whether they want to enter the job market and build independent careers.

The conservative PiS party, which advocates for traditional values, has been in a long-standing dispute with the EU over the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and democratic principles, such as media freedom. Scientists have also raised concerns about academic freedom, citing attempts to intimidate scholars. Additionally, PiS has introduced a near-total ban on abortion, despite a wave of protests.

In contrast, the more liberal Civic Platform favours less state interventionism and wider abortion rights. Prior to the election, Tusk promised to bring the Polish judiciary system closer to EU standards and to unlock the EU recovery funds frozen by Brussels due to rule-of-law concerns if his party wins.

The election, widely viewed as the most important since the fall of communism, took place at an uneasy time for the Polish academy. The National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR) is dealing with a major reputational hit due to accusations of irregularities in the distribution of grants in a call for digital innovation co-financed with EU money. Poland’s anti-corruption bureau (CBA) and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) are investigating the matter and NCBR has pledged full cooperation and denied any wrongdoing.

In addition, the future of the country’s basic research funding agency, the National Science Centre (NCN) was hanging in the balance, with the minister of education and science, Przemysław Czarnek, saying in early August that he would move to abolish the main scientific funding agencies, including NCN, NCBR and the Medical Research Agency, after the October election and create one overarching agency.

NCN spokesperson Anna Korzekwa-Józefowicz told Science|Business the election results are good news for NCN, and for the thousands of scientists in Poland – often young – that NCN supports. “Our agency is one of the few public (central) institutions that have not been subjugated to authorities in recent years. After the elections, we are confident that the agency's independence will be preserved,” she said. NCN was established in 2011 during the rule of the political parties that will now return to power.

As soon as the name of the new minister of science and education is known, NCN will seek a meeting with him or her. “Now, it will be crucial to increase NCN funding, as the agency's budget has been frozen in recent years,” Korzekwa-Józefowicz said.

Shifted boundaries

The election outcome also sparked hopes for a better dialogue with academic communities and a greater degree of academic freedom. Pałys said there is a chance to end the "strongman"-like relations between the minister and the academic communities and to start a dialogue-based reflection on the future and evolution of higher education and research in Poland.

As he pointed out, in the last year the minister for education and science put pressure on higher education institutions to stop some research in humanities and social sciences, that were inconsistent with his beliefs. "This does not support autonomy and does not favour academic freedom," he said.

Woźniak also said there were some examples of interference by the Ministry of Higher Education or the minister personally in the activities of several institutions, including universities or institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences. According to Woźniak, there was a case where the prosecutor’s office used the scientific findings of researchers in Wroclaw to test whether a woman had taken an abortion pill, which is now illegal in Poland.

“Some boundaries have been shifted, and this problem needs to be addressed,” Woźniak said. “We want our doctors to work according to their best scientific knowledge, free from the influence of any ideology or religion.” Taken overall, Woźniak said there are many issues to resolve, and how they are addressed depends a lot on the people in power.

Future vision

Both Pałys and Woźniak say that currently there is a lack of clarity about the strategy for higher education and science. Pałys noted the election manifestos of the political parties barely mentioned their vision for the role of science and higher education. “It’s worrying because this sector is fundamental for innovation and the future development of the economy and society,” he told Science|Business., adding that it’s hard to predict how the challenges faced by academic institution will be approached by the new government.

In Pałys’s view, changes to the rules and legislation have been made on an ad-hoc basis to respond to current needs and short-term developments. Such changes have been frequent and consequently, for many scientists there is no point in making long-term plans because significant changes can occur unexpectedly.

As one example, the Act on Higher Education and Science has been amended almost 30 times in the last five years. A document called ‘State Scientific Policy’ (Polityka Naukowa Państwa) outlines the strategy, but said Pałys, the changes in legislation do not closely align with it, resulting in a disconnect between the plans and reality.

The Polish Academy of Science is facing many uncertainties about the future with a funding shortfall recently leading to closures of some Academy institutions, such as the Earth Museum (Muzeum Ziemi). “There are questions about the role of the Academy in the overall strategy for science and higher education, and which direction it should take,” Pałys said.

Academics expect better financing of the research and education sector, which is low in Poland as a percentage of GDP. “It has improved recently, but the gap is still significant compared to other EU countries,” Woźniak said. “We also need more effective use of the money, not only for infrastructure, because, first and foremost, universities are about people.” In addition, young researchers need support in entering the EU international job market.

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