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Managing EU Research Projects
August 2, 2010   
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Prof. Janusz Hołyst, a Warsaw University of Technology physicist who chairs an association of Polish managers of EU research projects (KRAB), talks to Piotr Bartosz.

Why are European Union funds so important for Polish researchers and what is the role of an EU research project manager?

The research funding that we receive from Brussels is incomparably greater than what we could get from our universities or even the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Adequate financing of EU projects results in high quality research. We publish our findings in the best periodicals and work with excellent partners since most these projects are interdisciplinary in nature. The people we work with from other countries are the scientific elite of Europe.

The job of project manager carries with it specific obligations such as the supervision of the work of research teams in other countries in Europe. But it leaves me with a little time and funding to pursue my own goals as a researcher.

Which country is involved in the largest number of EU research projects and how does Poland fare in this area?

The general rule that applies is the bigger the country the more projects it is involved in. Germany, Britain, France and Italy have many projects, while Switzerland and the Netherlands, for example, do not fare badly when you take into account their populations. We, however, find ourselves at the tail end in per capita terms. On the other hand, if you look at the number of projects in relation to government expenditure on science, then Poland is near the top of the list. In other words, we have poor domestic funding but a relatively large amount of funds from Brussels.

The question is, if government spending on science in Poland improves, will the funds go to the right research teams? Many scientists seek funds for research, but this does not mean that they really reserve them. Competition must be rife in Polish science, as it is all over the world.

In the case of most EU research projects, funding is granted via competitive processes organized by the European Commission, which are open to research teams from the whole of the EU. Our goal is to have our scientists appointed as coordinators of or partners in as many projects as possible.

What kind of European research projects are managed by Poles?

The projects are varied. Prof. Andrzej Dziech’s Indect security project at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow serves as a good example. With a budget of 15 million euros, it is currently the biggest EU project coordinated by a Polish university. One of the project’s goals is to develop an advanced data processing system to help identify threats to public security and dangerous behaviors. As part of the project, computer programs have been created to identify malicious websites such as ones dealing with pedophilia. Another aim is to improve personal security against more traditional criminals such as house burglars.

Another group of projects are those being pursued by the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding in Jastrzębiec near Warsaw. These projects involve genomics and biotechnology.

Yet another example of an EU project is one being carried out at the Warsaw University of Technology’s Faculty of Physics and involving research into new materials for solar cells.

What is the aim of the EU research project you are managing at present?

This is my second time as an EU research project manager, and the project is called CyberEmotions. It involves collective emotions in cyberspace. It started last year on Feb. 1. It is funded by the EU as part of its “Future and Emerging Technologies—High-Risk Information and Communication Technology” (FET-ICT) initiative. The budget is 4.6 million euros of which 3.6 million euros is covered by the European Commission and the rest by individual countries.

The project tries to answer the following question: to what extent are our independent emotions revealed on various internet forums and blogs and to what extent are they influenced by other people’s emotions. Does an expression of emotion on a website, blog or discussion forum inspire other people to post a similar expression of emotion? Our data suggests that there is something like a transfer of emotion between internet users. One emotional commentary can lead to an avalanche of similar emotional responses. What is interesting is that in some cases it is negative emotions that fuel discussion and keep people at their computers. They want to express these negative emotions and discussion lasts as long as the emotions exist. Once the level of emotions drops, discussion stops. Our project’s goal is to identify groups of emotional states and eventually prevent powerful collective negative emotions from having a detrimental effect on the work of various internet communities.

Why is a physicist interested in emotions? What has physics in common with psychology or sociology?

As a physicist I deal with statistical physics and the dynamics of nonlinear complex structures. For many years I applied methods of analysis common in physics on economic and financial data. Later I created models to measure public opinion. With one of my students we created a social-physiological model of dictatorships. We discovered that, in line with the laws of statistical physics, a dictatorship is likely to arise if within a social group there is a person with a strong personality or one who exerts a strong influence on other people and the whole group shares this leader’s opinions and finds them difficult to reject. We showed that this can be put into a model, described with the help of comparisons, computer simulated, and we even managed to make a visual model. What is interesting is that chaos helps a dictator achieve absolute power. If people stop thinking rationally and are only receptive to various random bits of information, then a dictator would find it much easier to take power in such a society. In the last few years we have noticed that the internet reflects a picture of society and we got interested in internet communities.

Who else is involved in the research project you are managing?

Teams from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Britain and Slovenia are involved in the project. We also work with Gemius, the largest internet research firm in Poland, responsible for cookies, the tiny programs that allow website owners to check who has visited their sites, for how long and which pages they viewed. Gemius will be able to utilize the research to further develop its services and offer them to the owners of various websites in Poland and abroad.

A team from Wolverhampton in England is looking at automated internet data collection. All this adds up to tens of millions of web pages, including those on Twitter and Digg. The work is not only about data collection but also the automatic identification of levels of emotion displayed in certain texts. This is done by using specially formulated algorithms for text analysis. It is not a person that sits there looking at a screen and assesses the level of emotion in some commentary. This is done by computers that are able to identify emotion with an accuracy greater than 90 percent.

A team from Bremen is measuring the emotions displayed by internet users in laboratory conditions. The volunteers are hooked up to sensors that measure pulse rate, blood pressure, skin conductivity, and the working of body and face muscles.

A special team from Lausanne is carrying out separate research into the creation of virtual humans, similar to avators, made famous by the recent film of the same name. Avatars have been produced for many years and not only for entertainment purposes. They are used, for example, to train emergency personnel. Simulated virtual environments populated by avatars are used for such training programs. We now want these virtual humans to show emotions. The avatars in the film did this by mimicking human expressions and gestures. We would like this technology to be also available in everyday life and not only within the film industry. For example, every email could be accompanied by a virtual figure that symbolizes the author and interprets his emotional state from the text content.

We also have specialists from Vienna who are working on special software for internet forums. The software will measure emotional levels during discussions, and should these levels rise dangerously high a warning would be sent to the forum leader or moderator. Lately there have been discussion forums on various subjects where negative levels of emotions could result in various types of problems for the participants.

We still don’t know what type of problems these are likely to be and we are currently trying to identify them. Our partners from the University of Technology in Zurich have noticed an interesting correlation between emotions displayed in internet product reviews and the subsequent volume of sales of these products. Our team from the Warsaw University of Technology includes physicists who are checking whether there is a universal pattern to behavior as a result of internet postings. For example, does negative behavior follow negative comments, and positive follow positive? Could one positive comment among many negative ones restore the status quo and are there any statistical rules to show that this could be the case?

A total of 40 information technology experts, mathematicians, psychologists, sociologists and physicists from nine research institutions are working on the CyberEmotions project.

Why was it necessary to establish an association of EU research project managers in Poland?

I have thought for many years that people who manage EU research programs should have their own representative body and one that is independent of whichever institutes people work for. Thanks to the association we can exchange information about projects being carried out throughout Poland. We would like to promote good professional working practices in the management of research projects and Poland’s involvement in EU Framework Programs. We want to work with government administration, local councils and other bodies involved in EU projects. We would also like to take initiatives and recommend changes to the legal system necessary for Polish scientists as they take part in EU research and development programs. We are stronger thanks to our organization.

Why is this so important?

Funds for EU projects are awarded through a competitive process. To win funds for a project you must demonstrate that you are a good scientist, have certain achievements to your name and an idea for future research. If you fail to meet these criteria, then your chances of getting funding for an EU project are very low. To be successful is not a question of who you know but depends on a professional assessment of your work and future research plans by a panel of independent experts.

The European Commission accepts applications for funding in various fields several times a year but only the best projects get financing. If we have poor researchers, then we can only submit a small number of projects for consideration. There is also the matter of interdisciplinary research management capabilities. EU projects are often interdisciplinary and it is up to the coordinator to bring to the project, not only personal expertise, but the skills needed to organize cooperation between scientists from different fields such as information technology experts, biologists, sociologists and doctors. Unfortunately, interdisciplinary research is not a Polish strength.

What can be done to ensure that there are more of these projects?

Polish institutions that could run EU projects lack understanding of project specifics. Very often projects require the use of laboratories and need organizational and administrative support. Let’s say that someone is an outstanding biologist and wants to manage a project. He makes an application. Then the panel of European Commission experts checks whether the given project can be carried out in Poland. If laboratories or the necessary organizational support are lacking and the project manager will not be able to efficiently manage the project team, then the European Commission will turn down the application. Polish universities often lack expensive specialist equipment and cheaper organizational infrastructure to carry out projects. Such infrastructure could be teams of people tasked with aiding the scientists in a given institution in writing project applications and in project management. This is all very important. It is not enough to have an idea and a track record. You have to know what project to seek funds for and how to best prepare your application. Experience is gained over many years and our association was set up, among other reasons, so that project winners could have a forum at which to share their knowledge and experience with others who wish to follow in their footsteps.

Couldn’t that be done by technology transfer centers?

Technology transfer centers, as the name implies, exist so that the economy can utilize and benefit from the latest scientific developments. Here we are talking about getting research funding from the EU by taking on projects. We lack project managers, who do not necessarily need to be scientists, but do need to have the skills to organize research teams. Universities, with the help of our association, are preparing to offer special postgraduate courses for science managers who will be trained in project financing and monitoring.

Where will such courses be offered?

There is a program of studies for research project management and the use of research results for commercial purposes. The program is financed from EU structural funds and will be available in several Polish universities including the Cracow University of Economics, the University of Economics in Katowice, and the Kozminski University in Warsaw. These courses aim to provide science managers for the whole of Poland. It is not important at which university people study. General project management principles remain the same. There will also be courses for technology brokers, who will help scientists put their research results to practical use.
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