Polish academics call for more funding and greater scientific autonomy

22 Nov 2023 | News

With the likely new government promising to increase R&D funding and ‘depoliticise’ science, researchers are pointing to further reforms they say are needed to increase the standing and quality of the country’s research system

A statue of Nicolaus Copernicus outside Poland's Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Photo: Ken Eckert / Creative Commons

Last month’s election results sparked hopes for change in the Polish research community, with academics looking to the new government to reform the national science system, increase funding and improve their chances of winning EU research grants.

Much still hangs in the balance, with the make-up of the new government not yet clear. However, the three opposition parties that are likely to form the new administration have signed a coalition agreement outlining their programme in which they say science needs “depoliticisation”, that there should be a return of autonomy to institutions, and a higher level of funding.

The document also mentions the need to create channels for efficient knowledge exchange between academia and business, and to adjust the evaluation of journal papers.

Buoyed by the document, academics are calling for an increased science budget. Poland’s R&D expenditure amounted to 1.46% of GDP in 2022 according to the country’s statistics office. That was a slight increase compared to 1.43% in 2021 but remains significantly below the EU target of 3%.

The amount of funding is one matter, how it is allocated another. Zbigniew Błocki, former director of Poland’s basic research funding agency, the National Science Centre (NCN), is calling for the government to redistribute the budget to increase funding for some institutions and cut the budget for others.

Science should be separated from politics, said Błocki. “In recent years, several institutions were created by the government, with mostly political goals,” he said. Closing them will not be easy, because it requires changes in legislation, and President Andrzej Duda – who has a veto - is likely to oppose such moves.

Support for commercial research

Fixing the support for applied and commercial research is another challenge. Poland’s main funding agency, NCBR, is currently under a cloud after the country’s Supreme Audit Office (NIK) reported “numerous irregularities” in the awarding of grants under a call for digital innovations that was co-financed by the EU. An investigation by Poland’s anti-corruption bureau (CBA) is still ongoing.

Błocki believes that under the current system, Poland has transformed institutions that should fund research into de facto venture capital providers. “Companies have a greater incentive to try to secure a grant than to introduce an innovative solution to the market. In other words, we have the situation in Poland where science funds business, whereas it should be the opposite,” he said.

Błocki suggested that NCN could take on more responsibilities to increase competitiveness of the Polish science on the international stage. For example, he said the agency could further develop programmes for the establishment of scientific centres of excellence in Poland. In his view, this would address the brain drain issue by encouraging Polish researchers based abroad return to their home country and lead these centres.

Fixing research assessment

Recent attempts to reform research assessment to bring the higher education system in line with EU standards ended up causing more confusion than clarity, according to Joanna Golinska-Pilarek, a professor at the University of Warsaw and NCN council member. She claims the current evaluation system is so complex that few people can understand it.

The assessment of research quality partially relies on a ministerial list of points assigned for publications in journals. Golinska-Pilarek said drawing up of the first list in 2019 was not conducted professionally due to organisational chaos and time constraints. On top of that, the changes made by the current minister of Education and Science, Przemysław Czarnek, were inconsistent with Poland’s ‘Constitution for Science’ – a law setting research priorities. Golinska-Pilarek says that while some academics expect quick changes to the list or a return to the original list from 2019, she doubts that improvements could be made rapidly.

Although the coalition agreement includes a line about adjusting the evaluation of publications in scientific journals, Błocki believes deeper reform is needed. The system should be more peer review based, otherwise, there is a risk of scientists focusing more on earning points than research quality – a phenomenon called “punktoza” in Polish.

New vision

A ‘State Science Policy’ adopted in July 2022, will need to be updated in the light of the coalition agreement, Golińska-Pilarek said. “A lot depends on the new vision, primarily the pace of increasing funding for the entire science and higher education system.”

Golińska-Pilarek called for an audit of the budget allocated to science and higher education in recent years, pointing out, similar to Błocki, that many new institutions and special programmes have emerged recently, generously funded by the ministry.

She is concerned that the success rate in NCN calls for proposals has systematically declined and is expected to be in the single digits in the upcoming round. “Currently, many excellent projects deemed worthy by experts, go unfunded due to a lack of funds in the NCN budget,” Golińska-Pilarek said.

Justyna Chodkowska-Miszczuk, professor at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun and NCN Council member, also called for an increase in the success rate, saying the optimal would be 25-30%. According to NCN data, 60 - 70% of scientists in Poland had never applied for NCN grants. “With the low success rate and a substantial amount of work involved in preparing applications, researchers feel less motivated,” Chodkowska-Miszczuk said. In addition to increasing the success rate, administrative support is needed to simplify the application procedure.

“We have a creative academic community in Poland, and to realise its potential, we need financial and administrative support. I believe the changes should start at the level of high schools to engage young people in research," said Chodkowska-Miszczuk.

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