Transforming Polish research via strategic partnerships

International collaboration is the key to good science. Currently that is probably a sentence as uncontroversial as they come. Few scientists or science administrators would try to argue to the contrary.

However, even though this statement is a widely accepted truth, applying it in practice has at times been challenging. At the Foundation for Polish Science we would like to think that we have figured out one way of doing this, the lessons of which may be transferrable to other countries and institutions.

In 2015 we launched our flagship programme – the International Research Agendas Programme (IRAP). With IRAP we set out to establish financially, scientifically and organisationally autonomous institutions where scientists would set the agenda in every way.

The programme is based on three main pillars. The first is that directors of the institutions should be excellent scientists who will guarantee the quality of the research due to their previous track records and their visions for the future.

The second pillar is an excellent institutional strategic partner from outside Poland who will guide the new unit in establishing best practice.

Last but not least is an excellent, globally exciting and focused research agenda. Research and development and collaboration with the business community also form an important part of the programme to ensure the world-class science carried out at IRAP units results in benefits for society as well as the long-term sustainability of the unit.

Top researchers

To date 10 units have been announced, with all but one – which has only received the funding this year – already up and running. Their subject areas range from theoretical quantum physics through astrophysics and superconductivity to terahertz physics, molecular biology, neurobiology and cancer vaccines and genetics.

The directors and researchers of the new institutions represent a diverse collection of top-notch international scientists, including Polish and foreign nationals who have moved from other European countries, but also others from the United States and Asia, in order to become a part of this endeavour.

The strategic international partners who have created the new IRAP units constitute the crème de la crème of international science and include institutions such as the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.

This is not to say that creating these new institutions was a straightforward and easy process. Although in 2016 Nature ranked Poland as a country that is a ‘Rising Star’ in science, Polish academia is not exactly in rosy health.

The infrastructure has been modernised in recent years and there are a number of brilliant scientists carrying out world-class science. However, there is also the usual combination of grievances – too little money, too many teaching duties – in an Eastern European specialty sauce which does not necessarily support excellence and often hinders career development, particularly for junior staff.

We firmly believe that by introducing the human resources and recruitment policies used by our international partners it is possible to create an environment that supports excellent scientists at each stage of their career and that there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

By giving our recipients seed money grants of approximately €10 million (US$11 million) over five years to develop an autonomous institutional framework in a strategic partnership with an international partner most suited for their area of science – as a granting agency – we are hoping to create the optimal conditions for a good start and a bright future.

More than a five-year project

So far our hopes and beliefs have not been in vain. Even though the money supporting the IRAP units needs to be almost entirely spent in Poland (coming as it does from EU Structural Funds) and therefore foreign partners receive no financial compensation for their commitment towards the project, some of the biggest names in science have come forward to take part in what we, and hopefully they, see as much more than just a five-year project.

At the Foundation for Polish Science we don’t think that our job is done now just because all the recipients have been selected. As intense as the process was (each call lasted six months and included international panellists and referees from top institutions at every stage), we believe the real challenge is about to begin.

We will now work very closely with all our recipients to make sure ‘long-term sustainability’ is not just a phrase but a mutual, realistic goal we are working towards.

The foundation has dedicated staff to help the new units with everything from finances to commercialisation, recruitment and legal matters.

When needed we are in daily contact with our recipients or their representatives because creating a new unit is hard enough work, but what we are really working for is an even greater prize.

We believe that Poland can be the site of numerous excellent, world-class scientific institutions, but that some changes to the legal system and the way academic institutions are currently run are still needed.

With IRAP units we hope to bring a much needed and quite radical change to the academic landscape in Poland – proving that an institution which does great science and has fairly compensated scientists and well supported students is possible.

Dr Maria Pawlowska is programme development lead at the Foundation for Polish Science.