Standards are high in many disciplines, but changes are still needed in career structure.
I enjoyed your Editorial “Eastern promise” (Nature 426, 369; 200310.1038/426369b), but I disagree with Cezary Wójcik's response, “Eastern Europe; progress stifled by the old guard” (Nature 427, 196; 2004). If the system in Poland is — as described by the author — “hierarchical, immobile, hermetic and gerontocractic”, how has it managed to educate postdocs and students who are successful in the best laboratories in the world? The answer is simple: the picture is not as homogeneous as Wójcik suggests. At almost every university or institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences there are scientists who have chosen to remain in Poland, even though they could find positions in the United States or Western Europe.
Disciplines do vary, but in physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry at least, the standards are much higher than Wójcik describes. I am a professor of molecular biology and I probably belong to the “scientific establishment” Wójcik derides. Only three of some 80 publications that I have authored appeared in Polish journals, and I became a professor in Poland after my Polish team published a paper in Cell and several others in EMBO Journal and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
I also disagree with the view that “[m]ost research money is distributed by arbitrary administrative decisions, not as peer-reviewed grants”. More than 10 years ago the State Committee for Scientific Research, composed entirely of elected members, introduced a grant system, based on a peer-review procedure that mirrors the US National Science Foundation. All grant applications in the life sciences have to be submitted in English and we ask reviewers from abroad to rank them.
Four years ago we introduced a new system for distributing science funding based only on the quality of the scientific work performed in Polish institutions (see http://www.kbn.gov.pl). We initiated special programmes on genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and biodiversity, and we ask scientists from Germany, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom to validate them.
We are collaborating closely with the European Molecular Biology Organization and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for additional support of young Polish investigators, who are selected by these distinguished organizations. We are opening new Max Planck–Polish Academy of Sciences laboratories for young scientists working in molecular biology. Similarly, young scientists working at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw are recruited according to international standards (Nature 421, 471–472; 2003). Independent positions are awarded on scientific criteria alone, and neither a habilitation nor the title of professor is required.
Certainly, change is happening too slowly, especially for young people. Therefore, I am convinced that upon entering the European Union, we have to forget about habilitations and introduce international competition for all independent positions, from assistant to full professor.