The Institute of Physics at Poland’s Academy of Sciences is home to three EU Centres of Excellence. In 2001, it was awarded the ‘Brussels crystal’ for being the institution most committed to European co-operation. RTD info talks to Andrzej Suchocki, Assistant Research Director at the institute.
Research at the Celdis, one of the Centres of Excellence at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics.
Your institute specialises in solid state and radiation physics and has three European Centres of Excellence. Apart from the status this label confers, what are the practical benefits?
The Centres of Excellence have been very useful for the institute in a number of ways. Firstly, financially, through the direct support they provide and the national matching funds this generates. European financing covers a third of the institute’s expenditure. Without it, we would not have been able to survive the steady decline in state aid since the transition to democracy in 1989/90.
These centres have also helped to make us known, in particular by organising conferences and seminars. In 2003, we welcomed 274 foreign researchers and financed visits abroad for 352 of our own researchers, nearly all of them to Europe.
Finally, they have been very useful to us in developing training. Together with other institutes of the Academy of Sciences, we founded a private university, which has since become a department of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University.
Why the decision to concentrate primarily on PhD studies?
The decision must be seen in the context of the rapid increase in higher education numbers following the democratic transition. Many private universities were founded, but these concentrated mainly on teaching rather than research. As an Institute of the Academy of Sciences, we felt that developing research-based higher education was one of our missions. In 1994, our Institute had just 15 PhD students. Today, there are over 60, including many Ukrainians, Russians and Vietnamese, out of a total research staff complement of 310. One of the results of this rejuvenation has been the increase in the number of publications – 597 in 2003, including one in Science and 11 in Physical Review Letters – and we know the impact they can have.
What difficulties do you encounter?
First, the wage scales. A professor earns about €1 000 a month, which is twice the average wage. That makes it difficult to attract young people to a career in science. That said, with the rising unemployment since 2001 and the saturation in the previously very attractive finance and commerce sectors, young people are returning to the laboratories.
Another worrying problem is the weakness of Poland’s industry which makes it difficult to capitalise on our research. Two of our marketable activities, the production of ultra-pure materials (magnesium and cadmium) and Laplace transform calculation services, are being developed by the Institute directly because there is no industrial partner. The position is made worse by the general under-funding of Polish science. It is often estimated that with funding of below 0.7% of GDP, science can only be self-perpetuating without making any contribution to economic development. Unfortunately, we remain below that level.