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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 3, 2008
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Science Reform Gets Under Way... What's Next?
December 3, 2008   
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Prof. Barbara Kudrycka, minister of science and higher education, talks to Danuta Górecka.

In our interview at the beginning of this year, you promised far-reaching reforms of Poland's science and higher education systems, especially more rational use of funds earmarked for science and higher education in the 2008 budget by the Polish government (10 percent more than last year-and 27 percent more for science) and from European Union funds (4.5 billion euros up to 2013). The money was to be assigned for research exclusively by way of competitions. The ministry also planned to improve cooperation between science and business with regard to implementation programs and commercialization of inventions and research results. The goal was to ensure that the economy had an impact on what research was carried out, while universities were to open up to orders from businesses. As for higher education, the plan was to have flagship universities with the best courses as well as centers of excellence. Which of these rather revolutionary plans did you manage to carry out this year? Was it easy to convince the scientific community to accept such far-reaching changes?
The most important thing is that the scientific community began a very active discussion on the problems of science and higher education, and that it became very committed to the outlined changes. This helped us draw up a package of five laws designed to reform Polish science. The package is called "Building on Knowledge" and includes the law on the National Research and Development Center, the law on the Polish Academy of Sciences, the law establishing the National Science Center that will manage the distribution of funds for fundamental research projects, a new law on Research Institutes (replacing the law on Research and Development Units); and the law on the financing of science.

The reform aims to improve the competitiveness of Poland's science sector compared with European and world science, by creating the necessary organizational structures and financing procedures. This will serve to improve the quality of Polish science. It will also increase the ties between science and business, because mechanisms will be implemented to increase the number of research and development results applied in business practice.

We will also introduce mechanisms to adapt the standards of Polish science to international standards and harmonize our procedures for financing science with procedures used by leading international institutions that distribute funding for research. We also want to see more young scientists gain access to funds for science. We are introducing regulations to help them in this. Another important element of the reform is to create conditions for the application of good scientific practice and scientific diligence. The reform also aims to help implement more effective methods for managing scientific centers and improving the standards of education and obtaining professional qualifications.

Of course, all these drafts have been presented for broad public consultation so that the ultimate changes would be compatible with the opinions of the academic community. The package of five laws will be submitted to the government for discussion this month.

Will there be more money for science in 2009?
In mid-September, during the Economic Forum in Krynica, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that the proposed budget for next year provides for an unprecedented growth of outlays for science. He emphasized that a free and innovative knowledge-based economy is one of the pillars of our region's potential. This means science has become the government's priority. The money earmarked for science is almost 27 percent more than this year and totals zl.14 billion. We have managed to get an extra zl.304 million from the defense ministry for research projects involving security and state defense. This is the first such strong financial injection for science in recent history. It's worth adding that another zl.3 billion for science will come from European Union funds. With the budget money, that's almost zl.18 billion. This should also mean more funds for science from the business sector. Of course, I realize that the commitment of the business sector will largely depend on how much Poland is affected by the global financial crisis. I think, however, that focusing on innovation, research and development could be the best response to this situation.

As for higher education, we all know how costly it is. The state budget sets aside over zl.11 billion per year for it. It may come as a surprise, but the OECD has found that we spend more per student in relation to our GDP than the Netherlands or Italy-and also above the EU average. But, we are also aware that these funds are not always rationally spent.

Meanwhile, we have managed to obtain an extra zl.300 million for adjusting salaries, and we have secured zl.427 million in a special-purpose provision for higher education. In all, this adds up to zl.733 million in full support for this sector.

However, we are not carrying out a simultaneous reform of science and higher education, though we began consultations on changes in both sectors. The initial idea was to introduce the changes concurrently. After public consultation we decided that it would be best to undertake thorough reform in the science sector first. None of my predecessors ever undertook such a wide-ranging reform in the science sector. In the next stage, we will bring about significant changes in the higher education system, so that they can take effect as of the new academic year.

I would like to emphasize very strongly that for the first time in many years the Polish government has shown people that the country's development and the financing of science are among the top priorities; that it appreciates the necessity of investing in science and increasing the outlays on research projects. I would also like to add that the government intends to see 2 percent of GDP (it was 0.56 percent of GDP in recent years) assigned for science and higher education by 2013. Such growth, combined with comprehensive reforms, can produce positive changes in Polish science and academia.

How long will it take for Polish science to become truly competitive globally?
This will certainly not be an easy process. There are many people in the scientific community who are not interested in change, people who make various demands with regard to the government and the national budget. But this community also includes many people with aspirations and ambitions not only for themselves but also for Poland's development. The decisive criterion is the mind set, not age. Our changes will open the door wider for many scientists who are dedicated to their scientific passion but who had to break those doors open up to now. Obviously this cannot happen overnight. The scientific community in Poland needs clear criteria of financing not only scientific projects but also investments in research infrastructure and educational facilities. We have to substantially increase funding for research laboratories and equipment.

Today the most interesting scientific results are obtained thanks to state-of-the-art research equipment. That's why we assigned more funds than before for this purpose in 2008. We also want to see research equipment being used more extensively than it is now; we want to see facilities opening up to research teams from other universities or institutes.

Another important idea is to locate the most expensive equipment wherever the best Polish researchers work, which guarantees that the best results will be obtained. This isn't easy, though. Until now the criteria deciding about where to invest in research and educational infrastructure were arbitrary. We want criteria involving an evaluation of the quality of proposed research to be decisive. This is the purpose of new measures leading to the consolidation of teams, such as the institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Research Institutes replacing Research and Development Units, or universities and even businesses. We envisage not only the establishment of scientific centers but also science and industry centers, to bring the business sector into these structures to a greater extent. All this will take several years. The objectives are well defined, and now we are developing the tools.

The Polish model of an academic career includes a stage involving a postdoctoral degree known as habilitacja. You suggested that the doktor habilitowany degree should be abolished, giving rise to protests from part of the scientific community, especially the older generation.

The model of an academic career that we proposed when presenting the guidelines for the higher education reform met with great criticism, though it had its supporters. That's why we have developed a new procedure for obtaining the postdoctoral degree. I hope this new procedure, which will also be submitted to consultation when we present our ideas for reforming the model of an academic career, will allow young scientists to attain research independence sooner rather than later. I think our work aimed at shortening the procedure for obtaining a postdoctoral degree, and also taking it out of the jurisdiction of the councils of the university departments where a given person is employed, will meet with the community's greater approval. I am also convinced the new principles will result in more transparent and reliable assessments of people's scientific achievements as well as ensuring an impartial evaluation of those achievements.

Speaking of academic careers, what is happening to the idea of students with a bachelor's degree being able to move straight on to a Ph.D.-as a professional and scientific degree?
We plan to form a special fund financing the youngest researchers who display unusual scientific talent as students. We want to enable them to obtain funds for research, but with the reservation that their proposed research projects fulfill at least the criteria for obtaining a Ph.D. Such talented people will be able to carry out their projects and obtain a Ph.D. under the care of a thesis supervisor. Whether they also defend their master's thesis during this time will be up to them. Introducing such a system, we want to show appreciation for and promote outstanding young scientists and open the way to academic careers to them. We want to seek out the greatest talents already after three years of university studies.

The technology platforms established in Poland, following the European model, are a sign of cooperation between industry, local government and science. How do you assess this cooperation? Of the 26 existing platforms, just three seem to have serious achievements: aviation, construction and security...
I am fully aware of this. The very idea of the platforms, or clusters, is excellent as it helps bind the business sector with science and research institutes, not only in terms of purchasing technology but also scientific cooperation with industry. One great example of such a cluster is the Aviation Valley in Rzeszów. We create the legal framework for such clusters, or technology platforms, to develop in Poland, but our support will be not only through the legal framework and the basis for their operation as set down in the law on the Polish Academy of Sciences and the law on Research Institutes. We also want to give these projects a boost once they are up and running. Clusters and technology platforms that have already achieved some success within the framework of cooperation between science and business will be able to receive a special stream of funding for innovative projects. However, we cannot state in the law that science and industry centers, whether in the form of technology platforms or clusters, will be given preference when applying for funding, because the determining factor will always be the quality of a given research project. Thanks to their collaboration with industry-and we will want to finance this kind of cooperation-they will be able to obtain grants not only for developing a research project but also for its implementation. We also plan that wherever possible, financing will be provided not just from the state budget but also from the business sector. People from this sector will also have an impact on how joint projects are carried out. Then, many of the platforms that are now dormant will be given a chance of waking up from their winter sleep.

A recent study of Polish people's intellectual potential yielded pessimistic results. Is it true we are a country of poorly educated, if not narrow-minded, people?
This evaluation contradicts the schooling index for the Polish population, which is very high. It's just that this schooling level doesn't always translate into quality of students' knowledge and skills. Often the causes lie in archaic teaching methods and archaic curricula, not always adjusted to modern-day needs. Universities, sometimes even technical universities, seldom work with entities from the business sector that use the latest technologies, to allow teachers and students to learn about them. There are also many problems at the Ministry of Science and Higher Education itself, which has inherited a certain conservative approach to scientific disciplines in its operational programs for financing, for example, the innovative economy and environmental protection programs.

We also want to increase the mobility of our scientists, to see more of them traveling abroad. We have had a few successes in international cooperation; for example, we have finished drawing up the rules for financing involving the Polish-American Fulbright Commission, which will increase the number of Poles taking advantage of the Fulbright program. We have functioning agreements on scientific cooperation with Germany and Canada; and I have signed an agreement with France. We will continue developing this. We are working on a cooperation agreement with China. Our aim is for Polish scientists to take advantage more extensively of foreign visits in conducting their research or to support their teaching activities. I was surprised, though, to see how few people applied to our ministry to finance these kinds of visits. We have set up a special program for financing scientists' mobility; only about 30 people applied in the call before last, and 28 received a grant. That's surprisingly few.

What has already changed and what can be changed quickly, without amending any laws, is better information policy, with broader information provided to the community about the possibilities of financing not only foreign research visits but research projects and research infrastructure. I am sure the scientific community will finally come to believe that it's worth applying for funding. I would like to mention that I sent tens of thousands of letters at the start of this academic year, informing all scientists about the possibilities for financing research projects, which we publish on our website, and I also asked them to take part in the consultation on our proposed draft laws.

The new rules for financing research, with an increasing use of competition proceedings, are sure to lead to a more active stance on the part of scientists.

When you became minister a year ago, you said you would create a group of "flagship universities" in Poland, or schools where it is worth studying because they are the best, and that's also the reason they should receive financial support. Why did this plan cause such a storm in the community?

Mediocre universities were simply afraid that we would withdraw all their funding. Besides the academic community misunderstood us and didn't fully realize we wanted to finance the best departments, rather than whole universities. We want to call this a procedure for selecting Leading National Scientific Centers, allowing us to find out where there's the greatest concentration of scientific capital of the highest standard. We also want students to know where Poland's best physics or history department is, for example, and where the best scholars and lecturers are. The community knows this, but future students may not. We want the centers that employ the best scientists in Poland to get the most talented students. We also want them to employ the best specialists from other countries. That would be compatible with the policy of more funding for the best. This is the only way we can choose and create centers that stand a chance of competing globally.

I understand that next year will be a continuation of activities begun this year. The important thing is that you have managed to get things moving after a long time of stagnation in science.

I am only just trying to get them moving, but it's not easy. And I realize it's quite hard because there's a lot of sand in this machine. But the fact that after a year we have those five draft laws for reforming science already prepared shows there's a specific idea in place here. Early next year we will be working on the implementing regulations.

As for the reform of the higher education system, the idea is ready. Now we are working on it using a new methodology stemming from the government's newly adopted method for working on legislation.

To summarize this year: the ministry has managed to develop detailed solutions for science. What are the plans for next year?

For science, we have successfully designed the strategy of change and detailed solutions. For higher education, apart from the guidelines and laws, we also need to develop a long-term strategy. I'm glad that the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland and the Polish Rectors' Foundation are involved in this work.

And that will take up the whole year?

I don't think so. The debate on these issues has already begun.
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