‘Interference and underfunding’ threaten Polish research funder

Underfunding and an authoritarian government combine to create existential threat for Poland’s basic research agency, scholars fear

June 13, 2023
People carry huge Polish flag while attending National Liberation Rally to illustrate Fears for future of top research agency
Source: Getty images

Poland’s top research agency is at risk of being shut down amid increasing corruption, underfunding and political pressure in the research system, scholars warn.

A group of international evaluators for Poland’s National Science Centre (NCN) wrote to the science minister, Przemysław Czarnek, in late May to warn that grant funding rates were so low that Polish science was on course for irrevocable damage.

“The disadvantage resulting from chronic underfunding of research will be impossible to compensate,” write the panel chairs, adding that for some panels only 10 per cent of proposals were funded despite 20 per cent being good enough.

Frank Verbruggen, an NCN panel chair and criminology professor at Belgium’s KU Leuven, said the agency had been a boon for the internationalisation of Polish science but that funding rates “could lead to a brain drain in the long run”.

Natalia Letki, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw and a long-time evaluator for the NCN, was one of the signatories to the letter. She said underfunding the agency might be intended to create frustration among applicants, opening space for ministers to reshape the funder to better fit a nationalist outlook.

In late May, the Science Ministry confirmed that it was making a “small amendment” to the law governing the agency, with a spokeswoman citing comments by Professor Czarnek in 2021 that the distribution of funds from the NCN was “absolutely non-transparent" and that grant evaluations were “scandalous”.

Professor Czarnek, who worked as a law professor at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin before becoming a minister, said in early May that he would defund an institute led by Barbara Engelking, a historian who has said Poland could have done more to protect Jewish citizens during the Second World War.

Professor Engelking, founder and director of the Polish Centre of Holocaust Research, is the latest academic to face political or legal pressure for speaking publicly about Nazi collaboration in Poland. More than 900 scientists have signed an open letter supporting her.

“This is the beginning of people being scared of speaking publicly or taking a stance against the minister,” said Professor Letki, referring to later comments by Professor Czarnek that the ministry would “react” to the signatories of the open letter, who, he said, had “no permission” for “anti-Polish rudeness” that was “financed with Polish money”.

Markian Prokopovych, associate professor in modern European cultural history at Durham University and NCN panel chair, said there was a wider pattern of “critical” history in Poland being underfunded while projects with “patriotic” interpretations or subjects were favoured.

He said that in the longer term, Polish politicians could use funding as a way to cement the position of sympathetic scholars. “It could be that they’re also trying to position specific people in charge of the humanities, history and specific institutions, people who are loyal to the party line.”

While the NCN is struggling to satisfy its applicants with the Zl1.39 billion (£266 million) it was allocated last year, its applied research counterpart, the National Research and Development Center (NCBR), can be much freer with its budget, which came to Zl5.8 billion in 2021.

It awarded Zl55 million to a 26-year-old who set up his company 10 days before the application deadline and scored poorly on his evaluation, and Zl123 million to a company that has indirect family ties to the funder, according to local media. The agency told Times Higher Education that it had investigated both cases and scrapped them before the grants were signed.

The NCBR receives Zl4.8 billion of its budget from the European Union, and the bloc’s anti-fraud investigators are currently looking into its administration. “It’s difficult to say they are even funding decisions; it looks like these are just transfers of money,” said Professor Letki, adding that the agency had also funded some excellent and legitimate innovation projects.

The Polish government faces wider scrutiny from Brussels, particularly after the European Court of Justice ruled on 5 June that 2019 reforms to allow the disciplining of supreme court judges violate the bloc’s treaty provisions on the independence of judiciaries. There has also been an international outcry over a special commission set up last month to investigate Russian influence on Poland’s security, seen by many as a way to block the opposition Civic Platform party, chaired and founded by former prime minister Donald Tusk. But recent polls put the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party 7 percentage points ahead of its rival, with elections coming later this year.

“In four years’ time, there probably will not be an NCN any more, or it will still exist but it won’t be the NCN we know at the moment,” said Professor Letki, referring to the prospect of another PiS government, suggesting that it could seek to push the agency to favour patriotic interpretations of history, require reviewers be Polish or mandate the use of the Polish language in evaluations.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

All too often, "He who pays the piper, calls the tune". All OK when you are payingt for the reproduction of a specific product already out there, like a tune, but - when the product is innovation, research, invention, maybe the piper-payer needs to be stone-deaf.
This is a politicised article and lacks objectivity or focus. Why is an article about research funding diverging into criticism of the judiciary and why present such a polarised view? A success rate of 10% is not low. When I was a young researcher in Australia it was less than this.