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The Warsaw Voice » Business » May 28, 2013
Business & Economy
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Marrying Science and Business
May 28, 2013   
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Poland’s science and higher education minister, Barbara Kudrycka, talks to Danuta Górecka and Andrzej Jonas.

Expenditure on research and development (R&D) in Poland increased from zl.3.8 billion in 2007 to zl.6.8 billion in 2013, and inflation is not the only reason why that is the case. When you took over as science minister six years ago, there was a mountain of work to be done—a mountain that your predecessors found difficult to climb. How far up the mountain are you?
Taking over as science minister I was aware that thanks to structural funds [from the European Union] we would be able to introduce the kind of changes that no one had ever attempted before.

Does this mean that European funds take a lot of the credit for the progress made in Polish science in recent years?
Absolutely. In 2008, we began feeling the implications of the global crisis, which originated in the United States. For this reason, European funds offered the greatest potential for development. And we carried out the first, most serious, tasks. Above all, we crossed a certain barrier in modernizing the science and higher education sector—thanks to introducing regulatory changes and changes in the way of thinking. As a result, the functions of universities and research institutions are also changing.

What can you point to in terms of how the mindset of Polish academics and researchers has shifted?
People’s approach has already begun to change, but this is a long-term process. Of course, it’s easier to cite evidence related to research infrastructure: new biotechnology, biochemistry and materials science labs are opening in almost every academic center. These are highly specialized facilities that are often provided with unique research equipment. This is bound to eventually lead to changes in the way scientists think. They finally have access to the world’s most advanced equipment and can undertake innovative, bold research topics that they previously were unable to tackle without this equipment. Many researchers have accepted the fact that they need to make better—more competitive—use of funds earmarked for science, thanks to competitions organized by the National Science Center (NCN) and the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR). It is worth noting that especially the NCN is now handing out three times more grants than the Ministry of Science and Higher Education before. And the value of these is much higher. More funds are being allocated for specific research projects and scientists are creating larger and stronger research teams. Funds available for research have nearly doubled from zl.2.2 billion in 2011 to over zl.4.9 billion in 2012. Although there are fewer applications for funds, their quality and potential are greater than in the past. Scientists are taking up complicated and ambitious challenges and are boldly applying for large sums of money for their projects.

From which disciplines of science do researchers applying for research grants hail?
Researchers dealing with technical sciences lead the way in this area. The total value of grants handed out for projects under way in this area exceeds zl.5.7 billion at the moment. Research in technical sciences has the greatest potential for implementation and the greatest importance to the economy. But it is also important that researchers from the humanities and social sciences are also involved in this area. Their expertise is often indispensable.

Judging by the number of applications submitted, those most active in applying for co-financing include the Faculty of Medicine at the Jagiellonian University Medical College in Cracow; the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Automatics, Computer Science and Electronics at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow; the Faculty of History at the University of Warsaw; and the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics in Warsaw.

You’ve demonstrated that it’s worth making efforts to change the way researchers think. And you’ve also shown that it’s worth supporting young researchers. Is this policy designed to bring about a generation change in Polish science?
The policy tools that we use in this area have passed the test excellently. Above all, we have made sure that institutions granting funds for research set aside a pool of funds exclusively for young researchers. The idea is to have young people compete with other young people, and to have seasoned scientists compete with seasoned scientists. Earlier, when these two groups competed in the same category, few young scientists landed grants. Our financial policy motivates them to compete with one another for the most interesting research projects. After all, they will determine the standards of Polish science in the future. We are also investing in the work and research of the best students as part of the Diamentowy grant (Diamond Grant) and Generacja przyszło¶ci (The Generation of the Future) programs. The top 40 young scientists from among the winners of the third round of the Polish government’s Top 500 Innovators program went for a two-month internship at Stanford University in the United States. The Top Innovators is the largest government program for supporting innovation in science, with a budget of zl.30 million. By the end of 2015, we plan to send 500 Polish researchers and technology transfer center workers for internships and training courses abroad to leading research centers from [the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), commonly known as] the Shanghai Rankings. So far, 160 participants of the first two rounds of the program have visited Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley in the United States in Silicon Valley. Program participants are learning there how to successfully put research results to commercial use. Another important part of the course is the development of soft skills such as teamwork and work as part of a multidisciplinary research team as well as creative thinking, effective decision-making and conflict resolution. The young scientists can also watch as companies overseas work to put research results to commercial use, and they are also meeting with businesspeople and executives from venture capital companies.

Returning to the question, young people come back home equipped with expertise and great enthusiasm for making changes in their research communities. And they’re no longer as helpless as they used to be when they were fully reliant on the structures within which they operated. And when it comes to research grants, scientific councils and reviewers as well as the NCN and NCBiR are responsible for the equitable distribution of these among young researchers. The NCN organizes at least 50 percent of the competitions targeted at young researchers. It also contributes more than 20 percent of its own funds to finance their research work. In total, the NCN has already spent zl.186 million on that.

Unfortunately, there are still structural problems at some universities. And the outdated academic career model is another problem. The changes in legal regulations we’ve made have not done the trick across the board. Sometimes it’s still a school of hard knocks for young scientists, at least in some places.

In this situation, organizations such as the Young Scientists’ Council play an important role. It should strive to make sure that universities invest more in young people and boost their college careers. I also like the fact that the Obywatele nauki (Citizens of Science) social movement created some time ago is taking a stand on a variety of important issues related to science. It also expresses the views of young researchers and represents their interests at universities and other scientific institutions.

Let’s talk about the relationship between science and industry. A few years ago, businesses provided no more than a quarter of a billion zlotys annually to finance research projects; in the 2013-2016 period this is expected to increase to almost zl.5 billion a year. What’s the secret behind this surge?
We’ve been steadily implementing a special innovation package for several years. This package includes changes in law, changes in financial policy, and new measures designed to build a culture of innovation in Poland. For example, we’re planning to modify taxes in 2014 to facilitate innovation. Businesses will be able to transfer 1 percent of their corporate income tax to a scientific institution of their choice. There will also be changes in taxes for scientists who have invented something and are contributing their intellectual property rights to a company. Plus perhaps the most important change will be that scientists will become owners of their intellectual property rights.

Another interesting solution we are working on together with the NCBiR is the Bridge VC program aiming to ensure financial support from venture capital companies willing to invest in technology in Poland. Such a package of activities, supplemented to include further financing of innovation-based development—through measures such as the Smart Growth operational program—should become a driving force behind the development of innovation in Poland.

Does this mean that Polish companies will finally begin to invest more money in scientific research—thanks to intermediaries known as innovation brokers and venture capital funds, both Polish and foreign?
We will help companies invest in science through a program similar to Bridge VC in the EU’s next multiannual financial framework. Researchers are already aware that their inventions and technological solutions count as the results of research work for both their own careers and when evaluating the research centers they work for. And this means more finances for these centers.

Scientists who are aware that they can make millions in profits from the sale of their know-how will become the first group aggressively using the services of innovation brokers. This should bring about a greater level of innovation in Poland.

Is a network of innovation brokers already in place in Poland?
We have already trained more than 150 people at Stanford University; this year a further 140 or so are going to Stanford and Berkeley. In many cases, these people are scientists themselves and understand what the commercial aspect of research work is all about. Some universities started training innovation brokers three years ago.

When it comes to venture capital companies, this did not require any special training. Individual businesspeople knew whether or not they could undertake establishing a venture capital company. You need to be proficient in law and business in order to do that. The demand for venture capital is enormous, but the good news is the market for innovation brokers is steadily developing in Poland as well.

It is still not easy to reconcile the expectations of a scientist with those of an investor ready to launch production. Prof. Andrzej Czyżewski, a leading Polish scientist, whose team has developed a series of inventions including the Cyber-eye [a system of computer applications for use by paralyzed people and by doctors to diagnose and treat patients in a coma], says that inventions need to be helped to come out of the drawer. In order to bring technology from a university to the marketplace and apply it in business practice, you have to overcome an obstacle course of bureaucratic procedures. All this paperwork makes it difficult to put an invention to commercial use. To an extent, scientists are stumbling about in the dark. They have invented something and hope that someone will buy the results of their work.

What should be done to find an investor or manufacturer for an interesting design or technology?
We plan to allocate funds for the development of a system of databases for patents, technological solutions and staff research projects. Some universities are already preparing for this. For example, the newly built library of the Wrocław University of Technology plans to provide premises for meetings between businesspeople and scientists. A special first-contact position will be established there for this purpose: businesses will be matched with researchers capable of handling their orders for technology. We will support these digital databases of projects on which universities are working, using structural funds available under the EU’s next multiannual financial framework.

Should Polish researchers specialize—and are they already specializing—in niche markets?
We’re working on that. The Smart Growth Operational Program is based on specialization. Even the greatest scientific achievement, if carried out in total separation from the business sector, stands no chance of being a commercial success. These will be castles in the air. Collaboration between business and science must take into account the development needs of industry and regional companies. Consequently, the Smart Growth program is about ensuring that research topics match the region’s specialization. If you look at this from this perspective, we can say that the regional development strategies drawn up by individual provinces should take into account the potential of the science sector, its specialization and ability to adapt to the needs of the business sector in which each region has the greatest chance of fast growth. In nationwide terms, research related to the energy sector, medical engineering, material engineering and ICT is being developed in Poland. We also have substantial infrastructure potential for the development of biotechnology. I believe that in these modern sectors Polish scientists will come up with breakthrough solutions, for example in the industrial use of graphene and in nanobioelectronics.
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