Poland risks slowdown in R&D and innovation, as the dispute over EU funds lengthens

26 Oct 2022 | News

Polish academics are concerned that delays in receiving €35.4B from the pandemic recovery fund and money due from the EU cohesion fund could affect cooperation with industry, slow R&D and hinder international relations

Academics in Poland are starting to question how the dispute with the EU over access to €35.4 billion from the pandemic recovery will impact research, investment in innovation, and industry/academic collaborations at national and international levels.

Poland has been waiting months for money it is due to receive to help rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. But Brussels says it will not be forthcoming until the country implements “milestones” that include reforms to the judicial system.

Although the ruling Law and Justice party claims there are no grounds for Poland not receiving the funds for its national recovery and resilience plan, the conflict has been deepening. The EU is reported to be ready to also freeze regional aid coming from the Cohesion fund.

Poland is due to receive funding of €76.5 billion from 2021 to 2027 from the Cohesion fund. That includes €17.9 billion to be invested in renewable energy sources and circular economy, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and €20 billion for the decarbonisation of the transport sector, invest in rail, clean public transport and zero-emissions fuels.

In addition, there is due to be €3.85 billion for the five regions most negatively affected by the transition to a climate neutral economy, to support restructuring and help companies adjust to a low-carbon economy. The money will also support employment in affected companies and increase the quality of formal and non-formal education to increase labour force skills.

But now the lack of clarity on when any of the funds will start flowing has put future of various academic projects in doubt.

Some of the reforms in Poland’s recovery plan focus on strengthening the link between industry and academia. “Bearing in mind that the Polish recovery and resilience plan emphasises such aspects as energy efficiency, green transition, sustainable mobility and health care, the lack of funds may have an undermining impact on sectors that can contribute to energy security,” Maciej Sychowiec, an analyst at independent think-tank WiseEuropa, told Science|Business.

Sychowiec said the lack of funds may also negatively affect medical and engineering sciences that could benefit from the more intense cooperation with the business sector. In particular, the National Institute of Public Health could have benefited from the funds most in terms of developing its networks and its relationship with the private sector.

However, Adrianna Całus-Polak, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education and Science, downplayed the risks, saying that neither the pandemic recovery nor cohesion funds are linked to specific research projects. Rather, their main purpose is expansion of regional infrastructure.

Projects under the recovery plan “will enable the Polish scientific community to actively participate in international research projects, contribute to the improvement of the quality of R&D personnel in Poland, as well as stimulate the development of new products, processes and services,” Całus-Polak said.

Negative impact

Academics, however, are less optimistic. Hanna Kinowska, assistant professor at the Warsaw School of Economics says while the withholding of funds should not directly affect projects already underway, it may have an impact on future research.

“Poland's exclusion from the cohesion and recovery funds may have a negative impact on the willingness of other European research centres to invite Polish centres to carry out joint research to develop solutions at the EU level. Polish scientists may be marginalised, and our voice will be less audible,” she told Science Business.

Kinowska said such problems may result from a perceived lessening of shared values between Poland and other member states.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said that in the next few months the first advanced payments will most likely be released. However, as the country has been in waiting mode for several months, concerns of academics are growing.

Marcin Pawłowski, head of the Quantum Cybersecurity and Communication unit at the International Centre for Theory of Quantum Technologies, says if delays continue, the centre will have to cut the number of research scientists. “Right now, especially in quantum technologies, attracting qualified people is a huge problem. If I am forced to let go some of my students or postdocs, I will have big difficulties in recruiting somebody in their place.”

He also pointed out that staff from abroad need a guarantee of employment from the university to be able to reside in the EU. If the centre loses funding, even for a couple of months, it could lose its specialists.

Pawłowski says if the funds do not arrive it would be “an atomic bomb” for science. Less established institutes would suffer the most because they can’t weather the storm without financial support. In theory, the government could help by relocating some other funds to help science, but Pawłowski thinks economic problems make this unlikely. “We have a big crisis, huge inflation, and the situation is looking really bad, so science is one of the last things a populist government like ours is going to fund,” he said.

“I feel like I am in a car and I discover that all the gas stations are closed, and I only have a half full tank of fuel. So, the problems will appear very shortly,” Pawłowski said.

His colleague Łukasz Rudnicki, head of Quantum Open Systems in Relation to Quantum Optics, told Science|Business that although the recovery plan mainly focuses support on applied projects, there could be an indirect impact on basic research. “If we had recovery funds, they would fulfill the needs of applied projects, and there would be more funds left for basic research. Without the recovery funds, however, there is competition between these complementary activities."

Rudnicki said the risks related to cohesion funds are much more severe. “The National Centre for Research and Development and the Foundation for Polish Science, which both directly support us, fully rely on cohesion funds. If they are cut, our funding is gone,” he said.

Eliza Przezdziecka, professor at the Warsaw School of Economics, who is chief economist at the American Chamber of Commerce, says that while it is hard to estimate the impact at this stage, the funding is essential for Poland’s development. Poland’s share in R&D expenditure in 2020 stood at 1.39% of the country’s GDP, much lower than the world’s average of 2.6%, despite dynamic growth in recent years.

“Considering the lack of funds and the rising costs, it may be difficult for Poland to catch up,” Przezdziecka said. She noted that while the key focus of the recovery funds is development and reconstruction, many programmes include academic research, without which innovation would not be possible.

Although the consequences of the ruling party’s dispute with the EU are hard to estimate at this stage, extensive delays raise questions about whether Poland will have sufficient financing for R&D activities, and development of cooperation between science and industry in the years to come.

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