08 Mar 2019   |   News

Polish academy of sciences looks to uphold its position, as government gears up for reform

Poland’s higher education overhaul has given universities greater autonomy and could see them take over tasks of the academy. Now the academy needs a more flexible structure to keep pace in the changing research and innovation system

Jerzy Duszynski, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences

The Polish Academy of Sciences is at crossroads: following implementation of a long-debated research and education reform that boosted salaries and paved the way for universities to become international R&D players, science minister Jarosław Gowin now wants to reform the academy.

Gowin’s plan could lead to the creation of a federation of academy institutes and research universities.

“Selected units of our universities start to slowly resemble the institutes of the academy,” says Anna Plater-Zyberk, the academy’s director for international cooperation. “The question now is what the academy should do,” she says.

After the higher education reform was passed last year, researchers at the academy asked the government for pay rises similar to those in universities. Before agreeing to that Gowin wants to shake up the academy and force it to find new roles in a changing research and innovation system. In response to researchers’ demands, Gowin said the academy has two options, “Either it will start to reform and transform, or lose the brightest, most outstanding scientists in favour of research universities.”

The academy was founded in 1952 in the early days of Poland’s communist regime. After being revamped shortly after the fall of communism, the academy has struggled to remain Poland’s main scientific institution. It now spans a network of 69 research institutes across the country.

The academy’s president Jerzy Duszynski says it remains relevant, particularly in its role of doing excellent research and providing governments with sound scientific advice. But as things stand, the structure is not flexible enough to follow game-changing trends, such as the huge growth in artificial intelligence (AI) research and climate change. While it could, for example, streamline or merge some of its institutes to boost excellence in these fields, its governance structure is “too rigid” to achieve that at the moment, says Duszynski.

He is hoping the reforms planned by the government will make the academy’s rulebook less rigid, enabling it to keep up with the reformed higher education system. Strict job protection rules in academia means that it is hard to fire researchers who underperform. “When it is difficult to terminate a contract with one person, imagine how difficult it is to close an institute,” Duszynski said.

Constitution for science

Poland’s reform of its higher education system, dubbed the “Constitution for science”, gives more autonomy to universities in setting research priorities and makes research financing simpler. The aim is to enable them to become more successful in EU R&D funding programmes and increase their standing on the international stage.

In addition to changing evaluation criteria, the law amends the way university researchers are paid and how their salaries are calculated. Before the current reform, the government allowed universities to calculate salaries based on their own journal publication scores, but now the money will follow individual researchers.

If implemented properly, the change could not only make universities more competitive in winning EU grants, but also in competing with the institutes of the academy for national funds.

Plans to reform the academy have pitted academy institutes against universities, but instead of competing against each other, the institutes should build trust and collaborate with universities, Duszynski says. “We should all try to do our best for excellence.”

An opportunity to modernise

The reform could be a good opportunity for the academy to modernise and rethink its broader role in Polish society, says Janusz Bujnicki, head of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw and member of the European Commission’s high-level group of science advisors. “The academy could become a laboratory for organisational experimentation,” he said.

The academy also needs to be better at showing policymakers and universities why its institutes are still relevant and not a competitor to universities. “There is a need for communication, not just preaching to the converted,” says Bujnicki.

One problem the academy has yet to figure out is how to successfully give science policy advice. “The academy has issued advice on a swathe of topics, from migration to vaccination, and the protection of primeval forests to climate change” says Plater-Zyberk. 

The academy has also strongly advised against Poland’s heavy dependence on coal during the COP 24 climate conference in Katowice.

n the case of the Białowieża forest, the largest remaining piece of Europe’s primeval forests, scientific advice from the academy informed a court order from the European Court of Justice to halt government plans to triple logging activities. The environment minister Jan Szyszko was dismissed in the wake of the scandal.

Bujnicki agrees the “solid, reasonable study” put forward by the academy helped halt logging in the Białowieża forest. The academy openly offers its policy advice, however, “it is sometimes challenging,” says Duszynski.

For example, the ruling coalition in the Polish government strongly opposes immigration, but the academy has advised the country should welcome highly-skilled migrants in order to make up for human capital lost due to the brain drain to western Europe. “We are running around saying human capital loss and brain drain, but who is thinking about people from Syria or Ukraine as a possible brain gain for Poland?” Duszynski says.

In common with its neighbours in central and eastern Europe, Poland is affected by brain drain. To address the issue, the government has established a new agency offering special funding programmes for Polish scientists who consider returning to their home country. The academy has also won a large Marie Curie grant to finance 50 post-doctoral studies for Polish researchers who spent at least two of the past three years abroad.

The academy hopes many will wish to stay after the grant ends, but they need to be given real chances for long-term career development. “Incoming mobility schemes should be much longer, from five to seven years,” Duszynski says.  

But Poland’s scientific diaspora is not likely to come back just yet because terms and conditions are not attractive enough. Salaries are lower and the quality of life in general lacks the standard perks of living in western Europe.

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