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The Warsaw Voice » Other » June 17, 2009
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Where There's a Will
June 17, 2009   
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Prof. Janusz Rachoń, a senator, former rector of the Gdańsk University of Technology, and chairman of the Scientific Council of the National Center for Research and Development, talks to Adam Grzybowski.

You have 40 years of experience working in the Polish science sector. You are a professor, researcher, investor, former university rector, and senator. Eighteen months ago you became chairman of the Scientific Council of the National Center for Research and Development. The center aims to carry out tasks stemming from government science and innovation policy. What does that mean specifically?

For as long as I can remember, there has been a debate in Poland on who should be responsible for the government's science policy. Until 2000 there wasn't really any vision for this, and after the State Committee for Scientific Research (KBN) was established, what we had was in fact a "fair" distribution of poverty: modest funds from the state budget assigned for science that offered little chance of creating anything useful. A radical change didn't come about until the June 2007 law on the National Center for Research and Development, a government agency that is supposed to decide how scientific research should be financed.

The Scientific Council of the National Center for Research and Development comprises members of the scientific, business and financial communities as well as key ministries, including the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the Ministries of the Economy, Finance and Environmental Protection.

Lawmakers are working on a law to give the Council the possibility of developing and submitting proposals for what we call strategic programs. These are fields in which we absolutely have to specialize, taking into account the funds we have-areas of knowledge in which Poland's intellectual potential is the strongest. How many strategic programs can we have? No more than three to five, each with a specific budget.

The way I see it, the priorities are information technology, new technologies involving biologically active compounds, and power engineering.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education has come up with a package of five bills designed to reform Poland's science and higher education systems. What do you think of this reform plan?
It needs to be stressed that we have never before witnessed such extensive legislative activity in these areas. Of course, there have been critical remarks, for example that the laws should have been preceded by the development of a comprehensive strategy. That is true, but we don't have time and sometimes we have to take shortcuts. The Council held several sessions to examine the ministry's proposals. Most of our remarks were taken into account, though we want to make a few more corrections at the legislative stage to ensure free access to online scientific databases and research reports for the Polish scientific community, including private universities. Without this, no serious scientific activity is possible.

Fifteen years ago you helped establish an intercollegiate nuclear magnetic resonance laboratory in the northern city of Gdańsk. You have also shown that science can go hand in hand with industry by developing an original technology for the production of alendronate sodium. This technology allowed the Polpharma pharmaceutical company to make new-generation drugs used for osteoporosis. Is it difficult to combine science with business in Poland?

I learned to use research resources when I was working in Germany and the United States. Expensive equipment should run 24/7. Meanwhile, after 20 years of reforms in Poland, it still isn't obvious that everything costs money and that you have to pay for everything. From there it's just one step to putting research results to practical use. I am proud of our achievements not only because I was personally involved, but because they have improved our industry's competitive edge and reduced the costs of the national health service.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education is working to amend the law on scientific degrees and titles. This includes a plan to abolish postdoctoral degrees known as habilitacja. Are you for or against this idea?

Today in Poland we have about 2 million university students. A growing number complete their education with a Ph.D. Compared with 20 or 30 years ago, master's and doctor's degrees are becoming increasingly popular. If we compare ourselves to the U.S. model [where there are no postdoctoral degrees], we have to remember that it's a different scale and different conditions.

I am an avid supporter of the habilitacja system. That doesn't mean I mightn't change my mind in 10 years' time when the higher education market opens up and we will apply for professorships in all the EU countries and vice versa.

Some say that ties between universities and business are nonsense. Universities should be concerned with fundamental research, not with applying their research results in practice. This should be the business of private institutes, which should be allowed to work with state-run universities, but only under the watchful eye of institutions such as the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA). What is your view?

I don't quite share this opinion, and I certainly don't agree with the opinion that ties between universities and business are total nonsense. Research work is usually cheaper than applying its results in practice. That's why in our venture with the Polpharma pharmaceutical company, which makes new-generation osteoporosis drugs based on an innovative technology developed by the Gdańsk University of Technology, Polpharma holds 60 percent of the patent rights, while the Gdańsk University of Technology has only 40 percent. The costs of laboratory research were picked up by Polpharma, and the company also covered the cost of the patent proceedings and all the formal and legal issues involved in the patent procedure. The Gdańsk University of Technology is not a market player and if anyone can sell the technology, it's our partner, not us.

And one more thing: Today whenever we want to sign a business agreement with city or local government authorities, everybody expects to see profits within a year, and that is simply impossible. We need time, awareness, and first and foremost a golden triangle of local government, science and business that, in addition to applying research results in practice, would also offer scholarships and vacation training opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

What should be done to increase the number of people studying life sciences and technical sciences in Poland?

It was very unfortunate that math was eliminated as a mandatory high-school leaving exam at a certain point. What other subject could teach young people independent, precise and logical thinking?
During a recent conference held under the motto "You Can't Have a Career Without Math," I spoke of the shortage of engineers on the labor market. We are beginning to realize that this problem cannot be remedied without going back to elementary school, and especially junior high and high school. If we want to cope with the challenges of the 21st century, build a civil society, a society of people who understand the world around them, build a competitive knowledge-based economy and an information society, we have to significantly increase the number of students taking courses in the exact sciences, life sciences, and technical sciences.

My idea for an obligatory math exam for high-school graduation has won the approval of the Ministry of Education. Like me, the people at the ministry believe there is no such thing as dyscalculia [a specific learning disability involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics]. Anyone with a standard IQ can learn math, and we have proved this experimentally at the Gdańsk University of Technology's hugely successful Mathematics Teaching Department. Following my decision, we enroll anyone who wants to study there, the emphasis being on "wants." Our duty is to create the proper conditions for students to fill in the gaps in their education.

Why did you enter politics and become a senator?

My philosophy is that we shouldn't take offense at reality but try to change it. I really want to see Polish science and education to move quickly forward. I thought it was my moral duty to make sure that parliamentary laws were of adequate quality, and to motivate my colleagues, university rectors, to read legislative proposals and offer expert opinion instead of just complaining that our legislation is bad.
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