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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 2, 2009
Foundation For Polish Science
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Returning Isn't Always Easy
December 2, 2009   
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Many young scientists have left Poland to pursue research careers abroad-attracted by better pay and work conditions. But now some of these people are coming back, bringing their newfound experience with them, says Izabela Wagner, a Ph.D. at the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) who has written a report about the problems faced by young researchers returning to Poland after prolonged stays abroad.

In 2006, the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) launched its Powroty/Homing program to encourage young researchers with Ph.D. degrees to return to Poland. The program is aimed at researchers who obtained their doctorates no more than four years earlier and have worked abroad for some time. Under the program, the best researchers, selected through a competition, receive two-year grants and cash to pursue their research programs and work with host research centers abroad.

Pros and cons
Insufficient funding is the main problem faced by researchers returning to work in Poland, says Wagner. "We cannot demand the same standard and effectiveness of work from Polish scientists when their salaries are four or five times lower than what their Western European colleagues earn," she says. "I think everything else can be put right once we deal with this issue. We have the examples of the Scandinavian countries, which were dominated by agriculture 30 years ago and are now scientific powerhouses."

Acquiring experience by working in another country is an essential stage of a scientific career today, Wagner says. A postdoctoral traineeship abroad is often required to get a job at a leading research center in Poland.

The main reason for going on a foreign research visit is a desire to gain new knowledge and experience in working on an international team in line with international standards, Wagner says. Such visits often help researchers jump-start their professional careers. According to Wagner, FNP grant recipients set great store by their relations with other researchers, contacts with leading centers in a given field, access to publishing channels, and the prestige of the host institution. In retrospect, young researchers usually say that these visits were a turning point in their careers, Wagner says.

A foreign traineeship, however, is a difficult experience for many Polish researchers, Wagner says. Challenges include the need to adapt to a new work environment with stiff competition and heavy workloads.

Most grant recipients return to Poland because working here gives them privileges that a Polish scientist cannot hope for in any other country, Wagner says. The probability of being able to set up one's own research team is greater in Poland than abroad. Apart from family considerations, the decision to come back is often motivated by good relations with one's scientific supervisor and familiarity with Polish procedures, institutions and language. Researchers can hope to find employment at a leading research center in this country thanks to the experience they gained abroad, Wagner says.

A return to Poland most often means returning to the institution where the researcher started their career before leaving the country, though this is not always the best option, according to Wagner. The returning scientist's new status as an experienced researcher can be hard to accept for others, she says. Returning researchers often deal with unfriendly comments or problems obtaining basic work materials. They are given time-consuming tasks that have little to do with research or the most complicated tasks that slow down their work on a postdoctoral degree.

Another problem Wagner says is that large funds are not easily available to young researchers returning from postdoctoral traineeships, while access to funding enables scientists to carry out their research plans.

The Foundation for Polish Science plays a major role in helping researchers returning to Poland, Wagner says. It provides them with funds to continue their research.

Case studies
Dr. Sebastian Maćkowski works at the Institute of Physics at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in the north-central city of Toruń. He is a graduate of the University of Warsaw's Physics Department, and defended his Ph.D. on the optical properties of quantum dots at the Institute of Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, in Warsaw in 2002, in a group headed by Prof. Jacek Kossut. He spent six years as a visiting researcher abroad. He studied quantum dots in the United States for three years, at the Physics Department of the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then from 2005 was on an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship at the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where his research field was spectroscopy of photosynthetic complexes. He has received over zl.4 million to spend on research under the FNP's Welcome program.

"In technical sciences, being in the middle of things scientifically is of great importance," says Dr. Piotr Garstecki from the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physical Chemistry. "You have to learn about the important things from people who create science and not read about them in publications, because that's two years too late."

Garstecki, who is vice-president of the FNP grant recipients' association, has obtained funds under the FNP's Columbus, Homing and Team programs. After completing a secondment at Harvard University, he returned to the Polish institution where he had obtained his Ph.D. He has spent the past three years developing his research team. He says he was able to finance the project thanks to the Team program.

According to Garstecki, the most important thing is to create a system for developing high-standard research centers in Poland. This is also important for young scientists-the best of them should be offered special start-up packages: premises, jobs and funds to begin research.

At his institute's department of physical chemistry of complex fluids and soft matter, Garstecki examines interactions in liquids. Apart from nuclear interactions, electrostatic interactions are the strongest to be found in nature, he says. The ability to control them in solutions would be useful for preparing new materials.

One of the goals Garstecki set himself after returning from his postdoctoral fellowship was to create a well-equipped laboratory for students. He has largely managed to accomplish this task at the Institute of Physical Chemistry thanks to the FNP's Team program.

Dr. Natalia Letki from the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw has returned from a visit to Oxford University. A recipient of a grant from the European Research Council (ERC), she says her career as a social scientist would have wilted quickly had it not been for the FNP's Homing program. Letki is studying how people in postcommunist countries perceive the state and its institutions and what factors encourage the state and citizens to work together in creating public goods.

Letki graduated in sociology from the University of Warsaw and the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She defended her Ph.D. dissertation, on social capital in Central and Eastern Europe, at Oxford University. She works as an assistant professor at Collegium Civitas, a private university in Warsaw, publishing papers in leading international political science periodicals and taking part in international research projects.
Piotr Bartosz
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