Prof. Michał KLEIBER: A Look at the Post-Transformation History of the Polish Research Sector

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A Look at the Post-Transformation History of the Polish Research Sector

Prof. Michał KLEIBER

Ryc.: Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

A brief review of the post-transformation situation in the research sector should start with a remark on the legacy of the political system before 1989 – writes prof. Michał KLEIBER

In the different research management positions I’ve held over the last two decades, I’ve been a close observer of the transformation of the science sector in Poland. If based on this experience, I were to formulate a one-sentence summary of these scientific developments during this period of time, it might go as follows: it has ambitious aims, some remarkable achievements, too few practical implementations, and many open opportunities. Obviously, generalized opinions like these are always risky and certainly require a thorough explanation.

Ambitious aims, because, fortunately, a large part of our society believes that science underpins almost every aspect of our life and without it many things we sometimes take for granted – from switching on a TV set to using a mobile phone, to undergoing a major surgery – would be unthinkable. Thus, research can generally count on positive public opinion. In turn, this justifies the vast and ambitious aspirations of the scientific community, which are also strengthened by the many current research opportunities that were unthinkable in the pre-transformation years.

Some remarkable achievements, because there have always been various excellent research groups with a truly international status in our country, and many researchers highly respected worldwide. Their creative work has borne fruit in many widely known research achievements – in spite of very low funding, a particularly unsatisfactory involvement of domestic industry in developing innovative activities (notable exceptions exist!) and a very high teaching load for university-based researchers due to the fast growth of the number of students in post-transformation Poland. These have undoubtedly been factors slowing down the modernization of the research sector, which have hampered statistically visible progress in Poland.

Too few innovative implementations, because of the historically conditioned industry structure in Poland and its lack of established links with research institutions, the relative financial weakness of domestic companies in innovation-prone economy sectors, and the overly low number of industry-based researchers as firms dominated by foreign capital locate R&D  investments in their mother countries rather than in other countries in which they are active. The situation has been changing for the better in recent years, but even in the best case development scenario, it will probably take a decade or so until the situation lives up to general expectations and fully exploits the existing high-quality human resources.

Many open opportunities, because of the vast pool of talented young researchers, excellent research equipment acquired mainly by using European Union funding for research infrastructure, fast increasing international collaboration, and the availability of European research funds.

A brief review of the post-transformation situation in the research sector should start with a remark on the legacy of the political system before 1989. Its fundamental features are a centrally governed research system with rigid administrative structures and a non-competitive funding system, a lack of industrial research implementation opportunities on the one hand and some well-developed, mainly theoretical areas of research, in particular, physics, chemistry, astronomy, archaeology, etc. on the other. The first significant modernization decision in the research sector was the creation of the Committee for Scientific Research (KBN) in 1991, which was responsible for designing a research strategy and working out objective and competitive funding procedures available for every researcher no matter his/her affiliation. It was definitely a step in the right direction, even if for some reason the Committee had a very peculiar structure consisting of 12 elected researchers plus 7 government ministers. Such a strange mixture of researchers and politicians, seen nowhere else, was certainly the result of a historically conditioned and still significant at that time level of mistrust between scientists and politicians. Nevertheless, the autonomy of scientists in research projects selected for funding was for the first time recognized in Poland as an indispensable element of a rational science policy.

In 2004 the KBN was dissolved with the goal of preserving the decision-making autonomy of scientists in frontier research, preparing for active participation in European Research, combining applied research with state innovation policy, putting science in a stronger place in political decision making, and working out a rationale for the long-term structure of the research sector. As a continuation of this strategy, a modified system for research funding was created in 2010 with two funding agencies at its core: the National Science Centre for basic science including humanities and social sciences, and the National R&D Centre for strategic projects that require cooperation between science and business.

We do not want to leave unmentioned our unsatisfactory results in several recent rankings based on bibliometric measures (publications, citations, indices, patents, etc.). They indicate that Polish science ranks around 20th in the world and 8th in the EU – with theoretical sciences, especially physics, ranking much better. This correlates well with the current economic position of Poland but is far from being satisfactory in the eyes of everyone concerned with the future of the Polish R&D sector.

The situation is even worse when it comes to the evaluations of international universities. However, there exist strong arguments that typically adopted evaluation methodologies underestimate the performance of the best Polish university departments. Among the factors that are negatively affecting our ranking positions are a problem with the fragmentation of the higher education sector, the unfortunate existence of “domain” universities vs “full” universities, the high teaching load of academic teachers that limits their research involvement, and a high percentage of publications in social sciences and humanities written in Polish and thus escaping international readership. Just to give one example of what we mean by fragmentation, over and above the 69 science institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the 130 research institutes reporting to particular ministries, there now exist roughly 430 higher education establishments in Poland (130 state and 300 private establishments). In proportion to the population, the number of these schools often exceeds the number typical for many developed countries by a factor of 3 – the situation calling for urgent consolidation.

There are also reasons to be satisfied, though. Instead of continuing the author’s own and perhaps subjective assessment of the situation let us give an argument justifying the optimism by citing a longer excerpt from an article published recently in the leading scientific journal Nature:

“As it embraces competitive international science, Poland is becoming a force to be reckoned with. When communism imploded around 1990, science in Poland suffered a dramatic financial collapse and an exodus of researchers. Those days of hardship are over. Poland’s research intensity – the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on science – almost doubled between 2005 and 2015. Its GDP grew even faster, so overall public and private spending more than tripled, to 4.4 billion euro. And since 2004, when the country joined the European Union, about 100 billion euro in EU infrastructure funding has been spent on modernizing roads, hospitals –and scientific facilities. The EU infrastructure funding has helped to refurbish existing labs and create new campuses and science parks across the country. Economically, Poland is the most successful transition country in Central-Eastern Europe. As for its standing in science, it seems en route to regaining lost strength and talent.

Poland is already taking the lion’s share of scientific publications in the region. An influx of foreign researchers and the creation of international centers and research facilities add a cosmopolitan touch to the country’s science. And the proportion of funding through competitive grants is sharply rising. As a result, Poland’s contribution to 68 leading science journals examined by Nature’s 2016 rising-star index leaped by 12.7% between 2014 and 2015.

The International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IIMCB), established in 1999 is emblematic of the country’s upswing. It leads, for instance, the EU-funded, 3.6 million euro FishMed project – aimed at establishing zebrafish models for human diseases which also involves elite centers in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

“We have fantastic labs, but we’re lacking enough scientists. We must attract more foreign talent,” says Maciej Żylicz, president of the Foundation for Polish Science, the country’s biggest independent research-funding agency. “Any progress in science depends on the courage to try new things, something that has been missing in Poland in the past,” says Olga Malinkiewicz, founder of the Wrocław-based Saule Technologies, a privately backed solar-energy company. While at the University of Valencia, she developed a type of efficient solar cell based on a promising material called perovskite. Potential investors began to line up before she finished her Ph.D., and when the opportunity arose in 2014 to start her own company in premises rented from the EIT+, she didn’t think twice. Her expanding company has since moved to the Wrocław Technology Park, where commercialization of perovskite-based solar cells is set to start this year. Although no official figures have been made public, a Japanese investor is said to have provided $5.3 million.

According to Nature’s so-called weighted fractional count Poland’s top 10 institutions are the Polish Academy of Sciences, the University of Warsaw, Jagiellonian University, the University of Wrocław, the Wrocław University of Science and Technology, the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow, the Warsaw University of Technology, and the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.  Outside the new labs and campuses, Poland has turned into a colorful place with liberal cities brimming with restaurants, bars, and theatres. Something is happening here, and is a perfect moment for scientists to come and grab their piece of cake”.

To continue in this positive mood, we shall now look at some major Polish research successes. It is obviously impossible in a short text to highlight all, or even many of them. Some of them, however, mentioned here only casually, certainly deserve mentioning.

In the area of astronomy, which is traditionally a strong scientific area in Poland, we could look at research done on the distance scale of the Universe, the discovery of many low-luminosity planetary companions to solar-type stars, the advanced systems sent into space as part of different European, American and Russian missions, the infrared detectors installed in the Curiosity rover exploring Mars, or the Lem and Heweliusz research satellites. In the area of physics, Polish researchers have obtained highly original results in nanotechnology, graphene research in particular, in semiconductor spintronics as well in crystal gallium nitride and blue lasers. Definitely worth mentioning is our very active participation in research conducted at CERN with over 200 Polish researchers working there. Chemistry and chemical engineering have both long been some of the strongholds of Polish science with many significant achievements, although the specific terminology makes it very difficult to comment on them in such a general review. Many world-wide respected contributions are thanks to Polish information technology scientists. Among these contributions, we may mention work on computer-aided decision-making based on incomplete data, developments in mathematical modeling and computer simulation of complex problems, or important contributions to next-generation Internet developments. The great success of a Polish IT student in international competitions additionally supports the image of Poland as an important contributor to this modern branch of R&D.

In the area of bio-medicine and molecular biology we should definitely mention Polish successes in human memory research, in the transformation of malignant tumours into benign forms, in bioactive composite substituting for the loss of bone tissue, in herbal-polymer dressings for hard-to-heal wounds, in the transplant of an entire face and the pioneering of hearing implant operations, and in demonstrating the importance of the immune system in the pathogenesis of hypertension.

We are also proud of many achievements in the field of the Humanities and Social Sciences,  for instance break-through archaeological discoveries in Sudan, Peru, Egypt and Cyprus, widely respected research on the emergence of European identity revealing the importance of pre-Christian and multicultural traditions for the contemporary concept of Europe, working out a regulative theory of temperament and contributions to contemporary sociology allowing for a better understanding of the dynamics of complex changes in modern societies.

There is no lack of successful activities in industrial research including a spectacular growth of chemical exports, the cluster of over 100 innovative companies working in the so-called Aviation Valley, a pocket radar for the blind, a portable CT scanner for industry, the world’s most durable huge lightweight (steel combined with textiles) silos for storing bulk materials, innovative co-generation micro-power plants to locally generate electricity and heat from renewable sources, innovative technology for extracting deep geothermal energy, ultrasound scanners with colour imaging of blood flow, and many others. We are proud of having highly successful companies like Polpharma, one of the world’s leaders in generic drugs, Adamed, which sells a globally patented new generation of drugs, Asseco, among the top 5 IT manufacturers in Europe, Comarch, which supplies innovative, integrated software all over the world, CD Project, a global distributor of computer games, Zortrax, a global 3D printer maker, Solaris, a highly innovative manufacturer of buses, trams and trolley buses, and Pesa, a successful exporter of trams, trains and locomotives. Once again, with all due respect for the above we should not make it a secret – our position in global innovation rankings, even if it goes up every year, is still significantly lower than, say, our GDP position and thus it is still far from satisfactory.

Given all this, the natural question to ask is what awaits Polish science in the future? We have managed to build a lot of modern research infrastructure, and we also have many highly qualified researchers, based in our country or living abroad. We now need concrete action to give the research sector an additional impetus to strengthen the most successful research endeavors in the country and at the same time offer Polish and other leading scientists working abroad attractive incentives to work in our country. Our main challenges appear to be the following:

– the consolidation and differentiation of the higher education system, with a clear mission statement of each of the universities,
– the creation of a number of research universities with better and thoughtfully focused funding, aspiring to a truly international standing,
– higher overall R&D financial investments – government investments for frontier research and (by no means less important) extra-budgetary investments from the private sector for broadly understood industrial research,
– taking better care of intellectual property rights and increasing the number of patents,
– increasing the percentage of researchers and doctoral students in the overall population, and creating better opportunities for post-docs,
– proper recognition of the digital turning point in science we are witnessing today, which means big data-assisted research in particular,
– the appropriate adjustment of regulatory procedures towards the fast development of human capital in the most promising areas of contemporary science,
– the internationalization of higher education in terms of both students and teachers from abroad,
– the proper understanding of the potential hidden in new trends of research like crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, and citizen science,
– more active involvement in debates with citizens on contemporary development challenges,
– more active involvement in debates with politicians to strengthen the soft power of the state and contribute to better science-based policies, and the improvement of science education and popularization in the media, the latter also based on researcher-led events like science festivals, science picnics, etc. which have been very successful in Poland.

Let us add to the above a general comment important today for research everywhere. Even if the pursuit and diffusion of knowledge enjoy a place of distinction in many countries’ traditions and development agenda with the public expecting to reap considerable benefit from the creative contribution of researchers, society will support research only as long as it feels the results truly contribute to and address challenges humanity has to face. A crucial condition appears to be the belief that we can trust scientists and their institutions – accountability of research endeavors to the public is a crucial requirement in this regards. In other words, society at large must be convinced that scientific activity is at its service. Therefore, it is more important than ever that researchers constantly assess the ethical values that guide their research. They should always remember their mission as guardians of objective truth and avoid the perception of being defenders of their own interests in a media-driven scientific marketplace – a huge challenge these days. The significance of that is here emphasized because the world has imperceptibly entered the phase called by some World 4.0, which combines in a creative way physical, biological and digital realities, resulting in an enormous complexity of challenges we all face today.

.This clearly requires that any progress in science and its practical implementations be closely related to high ethical standards as the crucial factor in fulfilling the ultimate goal of any research – serving society in the best possible way.

Michał Kleiber

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