Poland’s ‘watershed’ election brings hope for academics

After eight years under an increasingly hostile Law and Justice government, researchers are hoping for an about-turn on academic freedom and critical studies

October 23, 2023
Donald Tusk celebrates election results
Source: Getty Images
Donald Tusk celebrates election results

Polish academics are hoping for a dramatic reversal of government attitudes towards science and higher education after an election that looks set to end eight years of rule by the populist Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Although PiS won more than a third of votes in the 15 October poll, a left-liberal coalition made up of Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition, the Third Way and New Left parties appears likely to form the next administration.

The downfall of PiS would end an era of strife for Poland’s universities. Academic freedom has come under severe strain in recent years, with researchers exploring uncomfortable aspects of the country’s history – particularly those who implicate Poles in the Holocaust – facing particular pressure from PiS leaders.

Ministers also threatened to cut the funding of universities that allowed students to attend protests against PiS’ restrictive abortion laws, and more recently have promised major reforms of the country’s lead research funder, the National Science Centre (NCN), after a clash over a study related to gender identity issues.

“Many of us were afraid that the next term of Law and Justice would mean a complete destruction of science in our country,” said Michał Bilewicz, the head of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw.

Dr Bilewicz, a researcher of the psychology of genocide whose promotion to a professorship has long been blocked by Polish president Andrzej Duda, said he feared PiS science minister Przemysław Czarnek had wanted to bring all science funding under direct political control.

Dariusz Stola, a political historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences, called the election a “watershed” for the country, ending PiS’ ever-growing control of the judiciary, state media and academia.

He said the construction of a parallel academy of sciences – the Nicolaus Copernicus Academy – was about bending intellectuals to the nationalist project, comparing it to the takeover of research institutes in Hungary.

Professor Stola said the new government should prioritise dissolving historical institutes PiS altered or created for what he perceived as ideological ends: the Institute of National Remembrance and the Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Jan Paderewski Institute for the Legacy of Polish National Thought.

“Now is the chance to stop the anti-democratic rot, but it will take a long time to improve the situation,” said Zofia Stemplowska, a Polish professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.

Both Professor Stemplowska and Professor Stola said the next administration would have to carefully unpick changes to Poland’s byzantine research evaluation system, which PiS has tweaked to favour journals it sees as aligned with its political outlook.

“The ministry has been interventionist in allocating points for specific journals in a way that then rewards the worldview that they want to promote,” said Professor Stemplowska.

The opposition parties have promised to increase funding for science. Under PiS, success rates below 10 per cent at the NCN were seen as a strategic way to hobble the independent funder.

Professor Stemplowska said she hoped the new administration would prioritise funding for early-career researchers, who have been particularly disadvantaged by years of funding drought. More generally, she wanted the next government to “have confidence” in academia, rather than treating it with suspicion.

“It’s going to be difficult. The state of academia has not been excellent even before PiS,” she said.


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