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 Center (NCN) wrote to the science minister, Przemysław Czarnek, in 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 percent of proposals were funded despite 20 percent 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 internationalization 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 longtime 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 May, the Science Ministry confirmed that it was making a “small amendment” to the law governing the agency, with a spokeswoman citing comments by Czarnek in 2021 that the distribution of funds from the NCN was “absolutely nontransparent” and that grant evaluations were “scandalous.”
Czarnek, who worked as a law professor at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin before becoming a minister, said in 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.
Engelking, founder and director of the Polish Center 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 Letki, referring to later comments by 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 favored.
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 $336 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 four times that amount.
It awarded grants to a 26-year-old who set up his company 10 days before the application deadline and scored poorly on his evaluation, and 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 Polish government faces wider scrutiny from Brussels, particularly after the European Court of Justice ruled on June 5 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 Party seven percentage points ahead of its rival, with elections coming later this year.
“In four years’ time, there probably will not be an NCN anymore, or it will still exist, but it won’t be the NCN we know at the moment,” said Letki, referring to the prospect of another Law and Justice government, suggesting that it could seek to push the agency to favor patriotic interpretations of history, require reviewers be Polish or mandate the use of the Polish language in evaluations.