Professor Wojciech Bal is research group leader of the Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Polish Academy of Sciences, and is a member of Obywatele Nauki (Citizens of Academia), a civic movement that promotes change in the scientific and academic environment.
Interview by Kamila Wajszczuk
What do you think of the present situation regarding state financing of scientific research?
Over the past few years a lot of money has been pumped into scientific research, the highest amount in history, but in a rather chaotic way. First of all there is no well thought out strategy. And there is still insufficient financing. The money is spent in an ad hoc manner, without a strategic plan, without a systematic approach to financing. There are good elements, but they do not add up.
What are the main problems?
It is likely that some of the funds are simply wasted. This is not confirmed officially, of course, but word has it that in some cases grant money was spent on modern equipment, which is now lying unused in storage rooms. The problem is that there is a lack of financing for equipment maintenance after the warranty period and for other current expenses. Regulations directly forbid spending money from grants for such purposes. And research institutions simply do not have big enough budgets to finance them.
This is not only a question of equipment, as even the best apparatus alone is not enough to do research. You need a well-educated individual to operate it. And there are very scarce funds to employ such people.
Why is grant financing so problematic?
The problem with grant financing is that it is short-term, and when the financing period ends you need to apply again and justify your cause essentially from scratch. This often means that you cannot continue even the best research. For example, from my field of research, the time between the discovery of a specific chemical reaction and its practical implementation in cooperation with a business entity was 16 years. During this time, numerous phases of research were carried out, adding up to the full cycle that ends in an innovative product. Meanwhile, grants are usually given out for three- to four-year periods and when you apply for a new one, you have to prove that your research will bring something new. The system wants you to make scientific discoveries in three to four years.
What about cooperation with business entities? Do they contribute much?
There is still little involvement of business partners, but there has been some improvement over the past year or so. This was partly supported by official programs, such as those managed by the National Center for Research and Development. However there is still a huge gap in financing – there are no funds for proof-of-concept research, which is used to verify whether an idea a scientist came up with is at all applicable. No funding is earmarked for all those stages of study that come between the initial work of scientists and its commercial implementation. Medical sciences are a good example. In Poland there are no funds for Phase I clinical research. So even if scientists discover a molecule that could be used for medical treatment, there are no means to do research necessary to push it towards commercialization.
Is there a chance for more involvement from business partners?
There will be incentives for academia-business cooperation in the new EU budget perspective, this should improve the situation. They will include educational programs, which will help academic and business groups to get to know each other. Such initiatives have already surfaced, but more are necessary. Work should also be done to intensify cooperation with the international business environment. In Poland, foreign capital is involved in creating research and development units only to a small extent, though it must be said that this is slowly changing for the better.
I hope that there will be changes for the better in this field. The majority of inventions appear in academic institutions, but their practical implementation is up to the business sphere.