Research excellence is a very common theme that comes up in any discussion of science policy. Recently the Polish Science and Education Minister, Dr. Jarosław Gowin, talked about his views on this subject in Poznań. The venue was one of a series of conferences in preparation for the National Science Congress (Narodowy Kongress Nauki) later this year, where he will present the draft of his baby – the new research and education bill, so called Ustawa 2.0. I will do my best to sum up his views and give some short commentary.
Poland’s rank in international research
Dr. Gowin said that on the surface, Poland is doing quite well in research, given how little we spend on R&D. However, if you dig deeper, you will discover many signs of mediocrity – very few Polish papers are published in internationally reputable journals, we get a very small share of the prestigious ERC grants, relatively many papers are completely inaccessible to international audiences because they are in Polish. He then went on to present his diagnosis of the disease and talked about some possible solutions.
The first and key aspect of what Minister Gowin thinks is ailing Polish research is the overly complex and parameter-focused evaluation system for research institutions. The problem, he says, is that everybody is focused on collecting “points” instead of on actual excellence, which leads to “pointosis”, a term I believe was coined by a well known expert on the subject Dr. Emanuel Kulczycki. He also expressed the view that expert opinion should have a more prominent role in evaluating institutional excellence. Obviously, this would bring some subjectivity into the equation, but possibly reduce the mindless chasing after points and mediocre publications. Dr. Gowin also said that whatever the benefits of a purely parametric system are, the Polish implementation is way too complex. He actually admitted to not really understanding it himself despite his best efforts.
Grants vs institutional support
Public support for research in Poland flows in two streams – one is the so called “statutory” support, the other one is research grants. Statutory support goes to the institution, which then decides based on internal guidelines on how to distribute it. Research grants are distributed based on expert evaluation of grant proposals. Dr. Gowin advocates for minimizing the role of statutory support and increasing the role of research grants, and I agree wholeheartedly. Statutory money tends to be distributed in a politicized manner with no clear criteria and no strings attached. It’s great to have this pool of money for “emergency” expenses, such as stuff you had not planned for in the grant, or for gathering preliminary data for the next proposal. However, I would much rather have more flexibility with my grant money than get an arbitrary pool every year. If I could re-allocate money from my grant to different categories as I see fit at the moment, I would much rather prefer to apply for an extra grant than rely on statutory funds.
Another issue with grants in Poland – and I couldn’t agree more here – is that they are terribly short in duration. The most common grants – the OPUS – is just for three years. This really does not allow to fully develop a research question in a way that would allow for publications in high-impact journals. I really hope that Dr. Gowin will introduce more long-term funding mechanisms.
Dr. Gowin intends to introduce a new category of “research university” into the Polish academic world. This category would include only universities with the best research potential and, if I understand correctly, would receive funds that would strengthen this potential. Interestingly, Prof. Jerzy Duszyński has recently announced that works are under way to create a research university of the Polish Academy of Sciences. I think research universities are an excellent idea. We really should distinguish between universities that focus on teaching with a very minor research component from universities that excel at science. Both financial support and evaluation of excellence should be tailored to the role the institution plays in the academic world.
According to Dr. Gowin, there has been a huge leap in the availability of large research infrastructure in Poland, with major investments both from national and European funds. However, he says, the infrastructure tends to be severely underutilized. He actually said that in some places he was visiting the only people on site were the rector or dean who showed him around, and security personnel. If this is true, and I suppose it is, it’s a huge failure of fund allocation. These infrastructure projects sometimes cost billions of euros and then slowly deteriorate due to underuse and lack of maintenance. I believe it may also be an issue of geographic location. If these infrastructure projects are built in places that fail to attract talent, they will inevitably fall into disuse. I believe that some of the motivation behind these projects was to actually make these places more attractive to top researchers, but it seems like it’s not working out for the moment.
The final issue that was tackled was open access to results of scientific research. Dr. Gowin said that open accessibility to publications would increase accountability and thus promote excellence. I am not sure there is direct correlation, but open access is a good thing overall. I am just hoping that the ministry will put the money where their mouths are and pay for open access fees, which can run up to over $5000 in the top journals.
The bottom line
I think that the Minister has made some excellent points. I am happy to see that Polish research is moving more towards a meritocracy that it needs to be in order to compete on the global scale. The most important changes that I think should be implemented are shifting support from statutory funds to research grants, extending the duration of the latter, and reforming the dysfunctional institutional evaluation system. So far, I am giving Minister Gowin two thumbs up for ideas, let’s see what the implementation will look like.