We Hope Centers of Excellence Will Inspire Others

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We speak with the President of the FNP Board, Prof. Maciej Żylicz, about the beginnings, current activities, successes, and the future of International Research Agendas (MAB) units, created through the FNP’s MAB program.

Professor, what exactly are the MAB research units, and what is the role of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) in their creation?

We may call the MAB units “centers of excellence,” although their creation and funding happen within the scope of the FNP’s International Research Agendas project, funded from the Smart Growth Operational Programme. In those centers of excellence, we provide the best Polish and foreign scientists with special working conditions in Poland. We guarantee them the freedom to conduct science and hire people selected through competitions. We offer a good salary and the opportunity to buy unique modern equipment. Currently, 14 such centers exist in Poland at different stages of development, and most of them already achieved international success and renown.

Who and how came up with the idea to create such unique research units in Poland?

The center of excellence idea is not exclusive because scientists from all over the world build such research units. So, it was obvious to us that we should also create them in Poland. This is the only way to attract good foreign scientists to work in Poland and to make good Polish scientists return after their study and work abroad. Today, when scientists are highly mobile (a very beneficial phenomenon!) and can choose their workplace, we must create sites in Poland that are competitive and have an advantage over other such places.

How did you manage to implement this idea?

In 2012, when I became a member of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science and a member of its Senate, I talked on the European forum about the quality of science in Poland and how it can be improved. Regardless, we had the FNP undergo evaluation by European and American foundations and experts in the field of science funding already in 2010. The evaluation came out well, as the experts concluded that the FNP can assist scientists in the creation of research teams, but what they lack is support in higher-level structures’ creation. This opinion motivated us to follow this path. We discussed the proposal of a new EU program together with representatives of the Max Planck Society, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne – which quickly became one of the best universities in the world – and Cambridge University. The new program was supposed to become a part of the Horizon 2020 program, which at that time was in development. The goal of Horizon 2020 was to cover the funding and construction of new centers of excellence in those EU countries that lacked funds for R&D activities. According to the project’s authors, the program should complement other programs implemented within Horizon 2020, which focused on EU-wide support of scientific cooperation. International consortia are very important but – in the context of countries that lack their own centers of excellence – they make it impossible for scientists that leave for such a cooperation to return to their home countries. We assumed that we would have to build Polish centers from scratch as it is very difficult to change structures that already exist. The Max Planck Society submitted this proposal to the European Commission, which accepted the program and allowed for both the creation of completely new research units and ones based on existing but clearly changed research units. Therefore, 2014 saw the establishment of the EU Teaming for Excellence program, funded from the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme. The FNP began developing objectives that became the grounds for the International Research Agendas (MAB) program. We have been mentally prepared to develop them since 2012 because we participated in the creation of this idea, and we were more than just the program’s recipient. On the one hand, the MAB program involved the creation of new centers of excellence in Poland. On the other hand, if one of those centers would receive funding from Teaming for Excellence, the European structural funds allocated to the MAB program would have been an essential Polish contribution to the realization of Teaming for Excellence.

When did the MAB program start, and how were the projects selected for funding?

We launched the MAB program at the end of November 2015 with a total budget of EUR 126 million, which came from the EU structural funds as part of the Smart Growth Operational Programme (Measure 4.3). The distribution of those funds was to be decided through competitions, just as we do with all other funds that the FNP programs grant to scientists. The idea was that an individual applies and – if successful – becomes a director of a center of excellence. This person was to be an active and recognized scientist with at least a Ph.D. degree. Although some claim that appointing good scientists to leadership positions is a waste of their abilities, we believe that a center of excellence director must be a scientist. In this case, we cannot limit ourselves to management by an administration: in the case of centers of excellence, one must know, understand, and feel science. Directors conduct their studies, must create their own research team, and then organize 5–7 other teams that work synergistically to achieve a common goal. The research must have commercialization potential, and each center must have business partners. Moreover, each center must have a foreign scientific partner who shows how others have already done certain things for a long time, how they manage such research units. Moreover, each research unit requires an international board whose tasks involve the selection of people for research team leaders.

Applications for the MAB program that met all these conditions underwent a three-stage evaluation. A scientific and economic panel conducted the first evaluation. External reviewers recruited from abroad evaluated the applications in the second stage. The last stage involved an interdisciplinary panel of experts, during which a physicist had to convince about his idea, say, a biologist, and the other way around. Only after such an insightful assessment did the experts create a ranking and recommend projects to be funded by the FNP.

And that is how you allocated funds to create 14 centers.

Correct. I would like to stress that we did not impose any directions of activity: all ideas originated in the scientific community. Among other things, we created two brilliantly cooperating quantum technologies centers, a center for new materials based on magnetism and superconductivity, a center for machine learning, a center for new technologies that utilize terahertz radiation, and a center that researches cancer vaccines. In the current global health situation, the last of those centers expanded its activities to develop a vaccine against RNA viruses.

Each MAB research center received PLN 35,000,000–45,000,000 for five years. For the Polish conditions, that is a lot of money. And here a problem arose because it turned out that we are not administratively prepared in Poland for such large expenditures, conducted in accordance with internal regulations of institutions and public procurement procedures. In fact, it was the administration of MAB research units that proved to be the biggest challenge. Most of the funds are “attached” to large scientific institutions which – apart from providing certain advantages – sometimes creates problems that also concern interpersonal relations. We are accustomed to the fact that scientists have the freedom to conduct science, but many cannot get over the idea that administrative workers exclusively report to the MAB research unit’s director and not the rector of the university to which the MAB research unit is “attached.” This disrupts an established management system and administrative hierarchy.

Do all MAB centers struggle with such difficulties?

Obviously, it was the hardest to establish the first MAB research units, which had to pave the way. To make things a bit easier for the future centers, we established the MAB Council, a group of MAB research units’ directors and external experts from various centers that operate in Europe. In this group, you can share both your positive and negative experiences so that we do not repeat the same mistakes and know how to avoid certain obstacles. Moreover, the MAB Council discusses the recommendations issued by us, the FNP.

At what stage of activity are MAB centers currently operating?

Each center is obliged to submit an annual report on its activities. After the first year after funding allocation, there is a mid-term evaluation – called organizational evaluation – which assesses whether the scientists involved created the expected structure of project implementation. The second important mid-term evaluation – called halfway evaluation – happens after the third year of the project and assesses the scientific results and hires, but also what is the synergy of work among teams. The third important evaluation happens at the end of the project. Currently, all MAB research units passed organizational evaluations, and one of them – the MagTop led by Professor Tomasz Dietl – passed the halfway evaluation with flying colors. Although most centers still await their halfway evaluation, we can be proud of numerous great results: our MAB research units receive various awards around the world and patent their research results. The MAB research units dedicated to quantum technologies excel in this respect.

More than 200 Polish and foreign scientists work in MAB centers of excellence. How did you manage to achieve this? How did the FNP encourage foreign scientists to work in Poland?

As many as 30% of team leaders and 50% of postdocs that work in MAB research units are foreigners. We do not have any other project that involves so many scientists from abroad. Our centers of excellence are competitive workplaces that follow the best international standards, cooperate with many research centers, employ researchers through competitions, and are equipped with modern equipment. Moreover, what attracts new employees are the names of MAB research units’ directors, as they are individuals with a high reputation and great authority in the scientific community. As part of the MAB project, we offer the research teams’ leaders a good salary for the duration of the project, but also funds to hire people and purchase equipment and, of course, we offer them scientific freedom. Those things have attracted a lot of people, but on the other hand, questions arose about what will happen after MAB funding from the EU structural funds runs out.

What future awaits the MAB research units and their employees?

We approached relevant ministries with a proposal to continue the MAB in the future perspective of EU structural funds. According to this proposal, the current MAB research units would have to participate in a new competition with other units and – should they succeed – they could gain funding for the next five years. Moreover, we propose a solution that – after the end of structural funding – the new MAB research units could be funded from the state budget for the next five years, after a positive evaluation of the implemented center for excellence.

Did the creation of a dozen or so MAB centers change Polish science?

It is still too early to make such a statement, but we hope this will happen. We created 14 centers whose employees are great scientists with fantastic results. We showed that it is possible to overcome the insularity of structures and do science in Poland in a modern way. Now we wait for this example to inspire others and for universities to establish similar centers of excellence on their own because we can do much better than only 14 centers.

What we were able to achieve for sure was that we attracted foreign scientists to Poland. It is especially important because we attracted differently educated individuals, we made different cultures and different ways of thinking collide. Such a mixture and melting pot lead to great discoveries.

Thank you very much for your time.

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Marta Koton-Czarnecka conducted the interview.

Photo: Prof. Maciej Żylicz by Magdalena-Wiśniewska-Krasińska

The International Research Agendas Programme (MAB) implemented by the Foundation for Polish Science is co-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund under the Smart Growth Operational Programme.