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Forging Ties Between Science and Industry
April 1, 2015   
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Prof. Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, minister of science and higher education, talks to Danuta Górecka and Andrzej Jonas.

What is the Ministry of Science and Higher Education doing to help turn Poland into a knowledge-based economy?
We have universities and scientists with fantastic ideas and we have companies. The problem is that there is no contact between the two. As the ministry of science we want to facilitate the process of going commercial with research results. We are making every effort to stimulate innovative research at colleges, institutes and universities, but industry also needs to create demand for ideas coming from science. Legal and institutional bridges are needed between industry and science.

Luckily, we are able to take advantage of European funds these days. A total of 10 billion euros has been earmarked for innovative projects in the next five years. We must try to encourage universities seek co-financing and win projects under the Horizon 2020 program, the largest program of this kind in the history of Europe. Previously Poland was near the bottom of the list in terms of participation in the EU’s 7th Framework Programme. This needs to change in the new Horizon 2020 program. That’s why we have proposed a “Pact for Horizon 2020.” The idea is to provide financial incentives for researchers taking part in projects.

Thanks to your European career, you can view the problem of Polish innovation from a European perspective in a sense. And also from the perspective of the Polish government, which means in practical terms—by virtue of your professional experience.

Thanks to my European experience, I understand the importance of internationalization in the world of science. So I’m also aware how important it is for Poland to open the door to this world.

For example, through the Pact for Horizon 2020 you mentioned?
The Horizon 2020 program provides many tools aimed at researchers and entrepreneurs. And an increased interest is visible in applying for these tools. Polish scientists are coordinating 11 international research projects. In addition, the Ministry of Science is supporting 11 projects under the Teaming initiative being carried out as part of Horizon 2020. Thanks to Teaming, the best Polish research institutions have a chance for a strategic partnership with the best centers in Europe. This is not only a race for money, but it’s also about forging innovative thinking. Twenty huge research consortiums from Poland in team-ups with the best European institutions, for example the University of Warsaw working together with Cambridge University, have applied for funds. Interest among scientists in projects supporting innovation will grow also because new regulations entered into force in October.

You mean the new rules under which scientists will have a share in profits resulting from the use of the results of their work?
Up to now everything that scientists invented and designed was owned by the university in which they worked. Today it is owned by the scientists. Of course, unless the university expresses an interest in going commercial with the results of the project. In addition, we have institutions that will facilitate such commercialization—innovation brokers and innovation incubators. Recently, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which is tasked with strengthening innovation in Europe, chose two Knowledge and Innovation Communities. Polish scientific institutions and enterprises are involved in both these projects. This is an opportunity for the emergence of new technologies, start-ups and patents in our country.

What is the basic problem that needs to be solved to make it easier to go commercial with scientists’ research results?
There are many problems. More and more innovations are being created at universities. What is needed, however, is greater interest in innovation from industry. Meanwhile, industry does not believe that science can be a source of innovative ideas that will translate into profits for industry. So it does not really want to invest. Nor is it particularly eager to apply for European funds, which, after all, are waiting for it.

In the West, the private sector contributes about 70 percent of all funds spent on research and development. What’s the Polish figure?
In Poland it’s around 43 percent. Private sector spending on research and development continues to increase. From 2011 to 2013 the increase was 80 percent.

In many countries, government orders are a key factor stimulating the economy and the science sector. What about in Poland? Silicon Valley was created mainly due to orders from the Pentagon. In Poland, there is a big program for modernizing the armed forces...

Indeed, there is money for innovation in military technology. We want the Ministry of Defense to allocate a much larger part of its funds for dual-use—military and civilian—technologies. Talks are in progress.

Has the Ministry of Science identified any specific disciplines of science that are expected to spur the economy?
We identify such disciplines through the National Research Program that has been adopted by the government. The program mentions fields such as new energy technologies, new drugs, and modern materials technologies. But we are also open to the needs and ideas of entrepreneurs.

What kind of international presence do Polish students and universities have?
This is getting better, especially among young scientists. They travel abroad, participate in conferences, take part in research and large international projects. They start out when they are still in college. But internationalization works both ways—Polish universities are opening up to foreign students as well. We have relatively large EU funds at our disposal to launch courses in English at various universities in Poland.

How big is the demand among foreign students when it comes to studying in Poland?
It’s growing. About 36,00 foreign students are studying in Poland at the moment. Even students from Arab countries are interested in Polish universities. We have relatively cheap courses and our degrees are widely recognized. Of course, Poland also offers foreign students good universities. Polish medical studies are very popular among Norwegians, Swedes and Americans.

What courses are especially popular with foreign students?
There are different kinds of demand. I was recently in Oman, where we talked about collaborating on education initiatives. They were not interested in sending students to research centers in Poland. They wanted their young people to gain practical education. They need engineers. In Poland they are looking for a good education useful back in their own country.

In Poland, expectations have appeared with regard to universities to educate people needed by the economy. What does the Ministry of Science intend to do about that?
We’ve already done quite a bit. Until recently, everyone in Poland wanted to study the humanities, so we mainly educated people in the humanities. Meanwhile, the economy needed engineers, programmers. So a program of special courses has been created to give preference to studies geared to the needs of the economy. The objective has been achieved—now it is universities of technology that are most often picked by students.

Right now we are carrying out the Competence Development Program. Employers told us: “The students that come to us are indeed very well educated and well informed, but they are unable to solve conflicts, work in a group or think logically. They lack interdisciplinary, social and communication skills. We want to hire an engineer who is able to look into the future, motivate people to work, write a good project, take it to a conference and talk about it.” With the Competence Development Program we are reaching out to meet the demands of employers. In the next few years we will be financing educational programs that will also teach a culture of innovation and creative thinking.

Poland is hardly a top performer in innovation rankings. How do you think it will fare five years from now in terms of innovation, compared with developed countries?
We are a developed country too. Otherwise we would not have become a member of the European Union and of the OECD. However, we need to quickly catch up with more developed economies. That’s a difficult but doable task. But let us remember that focusing on innovation is not only a goal for us, but for Europe as a whole. Some European countries find it easier to work on this goal because they already have a certain base and greater experience. Still, our recent economic performance shows that even today we are able to outdo other countries.

More and more people are talking and thinking about innovation. This is beginning to transform into action and decisions. We’re on a wave and rising fast.

Where do you expect improvement to be particularly noticeable: in the economy or in the science sector?
Science and business are interlinked. The scientific community, by the very nature of things, thinks about innovation. Science is about thinking about change, about the future. In industry, this is not always the case. Profit is what counts there most. But businesses can also profit from innovation.
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