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Virtual Reality a Real Chance for Poland
June 4, 2014   
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Prof. Krzysztof Kurzydłowski, director of the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR), a Warsaw-based government agency tasked with subsidizing scientific research in Poland, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Danuta Górecka.

The National Center for Research and Development has been in existence since July 2007. It now has some experience in bringing science and business together in a way that’s effective. Will 2014 see some changes in the way you operate, or will you continue to press ahead with what you have been doing so far?

The NCBiR’s work involves long-term projects and programs. We are therefore heavily anchored in decisions made in the past. At the same time, we are introducing changes where these are necessary and responding to the needs of the world around us. These changes are primarily aimed at increasing the involvement of businesses in all the projects we finance. This also applies to those projects in which businesses did not take part earlier—only universities were involved in these. For example, we were dealing with projects in which scientists wrote that their research was important for industry, but which did not have industry professionals involved in carrying out the project.

Therefore, even in the case of projects focused on the initial stages of creating knowledge that is ultimately destined for the market, we have introduced specific incentives to encourage cooperation between universities and businesses. These incentives appeared, for example, in each successive round of the our Applied Research Program. We are working to ensure that a business takes part in a project from the very beginning and that it is the party managing the project.

What percentage of projects financed by your center has been put into commercial practice?

It is still too early for a clear answer. The NCBiR has only been in operation since mid-2007, and R&D projects take a long time to complete—from three to six years. In order to determine if they have achieved the assumed goal, these projects must be completed first, and few have actually been completed so far. With each year the number of projects we monitor is growing, but few of them are already subject to evaluation. It is quite natural that, for most of these projects, we assumed a five-year monitoring period after they are completed. I’ve learned to be patient when it comes to seeing the results of our work.

Currently, we are trying to support projects that are closer to market launch. We assume that within two years these will be completed so they can reach the consumer. That is why we keep the doors wide open for businesses willing to make a substantial contribution to a project. That guarantees the project will benefit the market in the near future. Importantly, in all grant programs run by the National Center for Research and Development we have a sufficiently large number of applications to believe that we are really choosing the best of the best. There is also another aspect to this issue—a company can gain a lot even if the project ends without a spectacular market success, for example by being able to modify some of its other products.

When carrying out its activities, does the NCBiR use only Polish funds, or does it also use funds from EU coffers?

Our budget is based mainly on European funds. Poland’s contribution has remained more or less constant over the last three years—at zl.700 million annually. We have had EU money at our disposal since the second half of 2011. Support from these funds is growing steadily. In 2014, the NCBiR’s total budget should be around zl.5.5 billion. Under the [EU’s] ending Financial Perspective we had funds from three Operational Programmes—Innovative Economy; Human Resources; and Infrastructure and Environment. All were very important, but our mission was best served by activities financed under the Innovative Economy program. As part of this program, the NCBiR continued to support projects initiated by institutions such as the Ministry of Science and Higher Education by supporting research conducted by research-and-industry consortiums.

The NCBiR is a government agency. What are its tasks?
The development of Poland through effective investment in research and development aimed at economic growth based on new technologies and helping the country bridge the development gap [with Western Europe] and serving social development.

You match partners and give them money?

Matchmaking is not our role. We distribute information about our programs in specific communities, and we encourage them to work together. This is a certain educational role for the worlds of business and science, which do not always have common goals. That is why it’s so important for us to spread awareness about why it’s worth investing public money in the work of research-and-industry consortiums that will result in the generation of private profits.

Are there similar agencies in developed countries?

In all of them. The goal of each government is to create optimal conditions for the development of a knowledge-based economy. Such an economy will create jobs, fuel the development of strategic industries and at the same time generate tax revenue. It’s worth remembering that a business functions least well when it is owned by the government or state. Whether we like it or not, we are building capitalism, not socialism. In Poland, we have an economy that is already predominantly in private hands. Therefore, when funding research beneficial to the economy, we should stimulate the private sector.

How do you keep tabs on how the allocated funds are spent?

On the basis of an agreement signed, the beneficiary is obligated to carry out a project in accordance with the submitted application and the letter of the law. This means the beneficiary must ensure the proper management of the funds, spend them on justified purposes, and so on. Therefore, in most cases, in the current system of subsidies in Poland, monitoring focuses on formal compliance, for example on whether the public procurement law was respected. At the NCBiR we try to have a more business-oriented approach and change the proportions, for example to add to that solid professional supervision, based on expert opinion when it comes to reports submitted by the contractor. I think this is correct. At the same time, we proceed from the assumption that our partners are honest people. We are handling 4,000 or so projects, and detailed scrutiny of every one of these is not rational. But I have no reason to believe that these spending supervision systems pose a problem. Any cases of irregularities—should they occur—are detected.

For Poland, as with any other country, the defense sector is extremely important. Poland's program for modernizing its armed forces, which has been generating a lot of attention lately, is a huge opportunity for the science sector and the economy as a whole. Internationally, many orders for research come from the defense and security sector. Is the NCBiR part of such projects as well?

The key issue is to identify and develop procedures that will make it possible to efficiently finance projects for the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The challenge lies in the fact that you cannot invite just any experts to assess the progress of these very specific projects, but only those who look through the lens of the changing needs of both these sectors. Therefore, we need to organize everything in such a way so that the supervisory teams are made up of people who care about carrying out the vision of individual ministries. As shown by the examples of other countries, programs for the modernization of armed forces can be an excellent driver of growth for the science sector and the economy as a whole. But such programs are long term in nature and require level-headed debate on what we really have and on what terms we should create new technologies or develop them together with some partner.

What other areas of the economy and major government projects will the NCBiR be focusing on?

Strategic industries such as food, health and energy. Currently we are launching a large strategic program for food, forestry and sustainable agriculture, with environmental aspects. Polish health food is an important industry in which we can be successful internationally.

What about issues related to energy, environmental protection, and coal gasification?

These topics are being tackled in programs that will soon be coming to an end. We will see what has been achieved in this area. We will evaluate that when the results of the research are on the table.

Are there any initiatives from Polish scientists when it comes to shale gas? Many say that existing shale gas extraction technology is tailored to U.S. conditions.

There are already more than a dozen promising projects in which contracts have been signed. Further ones are being evaluated. They include ideas for original solutions. The most important thing, however, is the capability of experimental confirmation. Therefore, without the participation of industry, without access to real wells, none of these projects has a chance of success.

As someone with experience in three areas—science, industry and government administration—do you think Poland has reached the stage where it can be a major global player in any field?

Yes. I am more and more convinced that Poland can be a global player in projects related to the growing use of virtual reality technology. Of course, a virtual meal will not be a substitute for real food eaten in a pleasant atmosphere, but today the preparation of a dish can be preceded by the generation of a 3D image, which will make it possible to predict what the dish will look like when the cook takes it out of the pot.

This applies to all fields—from the tools that allow a surgeon to prepare for a difficult operation, to those used by an engineer, who can enter inside his design and see how it looks from the inside, to those used by a general, who can brainstorm, together with commanding officers, the scenarios that can be adopted on the battlefield.

So if you were to encourage investors to put money in Polish know-how and technology, you would be trying to convince them to invest in virtual reality technology?

Exactly—because infrastructure is not at all important in this case. Conducting tests in real conditions often requires significant investment.

Does this mean that virtual reality technology will enter all areas of life soon?

Anyone analyzing Poland’s prospects and chances for a national specialization must come to the conclusion that virtual reality technology is an area with a future. I think that in the coming financial perspective [under the EU’s next budget] the NCBiR will launch a program to support virtual reality technology.
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