On Polish Returns - a conversation with Grzegorz Pasternak, Ph.

So far, they have conducted scientific research in the best centers in the world. They have worked in Germany, the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom or Austria. But they also returned from China, Oman, Australia and Singapore. One person returned from Italy. We are talking about the winners of the Polish Returns program, which the National Agency for Academic Exchange launched shortly after its inception, in 2018. Today, after five years, this is a group of 80 great scientists who, step by step, are changing the image of Polish science. Their stories are very different. Some decided to return to their home country after only 3-4 years, others spent more than a dozen years abroad, and there are some who decided to return after more than 3 decades.

Join us for an interview with one of the scientists, Grzegorz Pasternak, Ph.D., who has decided to return to Poland after spending time in Italy and the United Kingdom.
Scientists currently working abroad are encouraged to participate in the call for applications for the program, which is still open until August 31. For more information, visit the NAWA website.

Why did you decide to return to Poland?

I was at a stage in my career where my goal was to establish a research group and do independent research. This was the main, but not the only, reason for choosing Poland as my next step. Realizing this goal in your own country is a much more comfortable solution than living in exile.

What did your research stay abroad give you?

It was a very intellectually stimulating experience that opened me up to completely new research issues, ways of conducting and organizing research and thinking about science. The opportunity to work with very good scientists, under new circumstances and in a new subject matter brought great value to my later scientific development.

What do you consider to be your greatest scientific success?

In the organizational sphere, I think it was the launch of the Microbial Electrochemical Systems Laboratory from scratch and a research group focused on bioelectrochemical reactor technology. This would not have been possible without NAWA and the openness of the PWR Chemistry Department, where I currently work. In the research sphere, I think some of the most interesting achievements include the development of an autonomous, contaminant detection device that is powered by these contaminants, as well as the development of a process for the synthesis of biosurfactants with the simultaneous acquisition of electricity, instead of using energy to conduct the biosynthesis process.

In what fields do you see the biggest differences between Poland and Italy in conducting scientific research?

I think these differences are not particularly large. Certainly what we lack are central laboratories with open access to apparatus. Italians do well in international research consortia and applying for EU funding. At least in part, this is also due to the availability of regional grant funds. In my opinion, for example, we have more opportunities for young researchers who would like to start independent research. We fare worse, however, if you look at the sheer numbers. According to Eurostat, we have an almost identical percentage of science spending in relation to GDP. Unfortunately, in absolute numbers, this means that we spend about 35% of what the Italians do on research. We are many times weaker in terms of European patent filings and weaker in terms of the percentage of the population employed in R&D. It is important to look at these figures, consider why, and strive to improve this situation. Another aspect is the degree of internationalization in science in Italy. At the institute where I worked, about 20% of the scientific staff were foreigners.

What would be worth changing in Polish science?

As for ad hoc solutions that can be implemented in a shorter period of time, access to research apparatus should be definitely improved and systematized, we often lack solutions such as the central laboratories used in Italy and other European countries, whereby larger apparatus purchases are the backbone for the entire research community of a given unit. We also need to simplify procurement procedures, a good example for me was the United Kingdom, where such solutions were introduced that allowed orders to be fulfilled in one day from placing the order to receiving the material. Poland and Italy compare very similarly in this field, although it seems to me that in Italy the system is even more complicated than in Poland. It would also be necessary to introduce formal facilitations in hiring scientists from abroad, as well as to increase their participation in the scientific life of universities.
As far as long-term goals are concerned, we certainly need increased funding for science: from supporting research funding institutions and increasing the availability of grants, to salaries in the science sector, so as to retain current but also attract new talent to scientific work, its core will be the strength of our economy. In my view, we also need increased confidence in the private sector and simplification of collaborative procedures on behalf of industry to be able to take full advantage of this intellectual potential.