Prof. dr hab. Maciej Żylicz, a UG graduate and former Vice-Rector for Science at our University, talks about his turbulent path from student to President of the FNP.

Marcel Jakubowski: - You finished secondary school with a sports profile in Zielona Góra, almost 500 km from Gdańsk. What made you choose to study physics at our university, which is not related to sport? 

- It was a bit the other way around. I was born in Gdańsk. When I was one year old, my parents moved to Wrocław and lived there for 17 years. After 69' they returned to Gdańsk. I went to Zielona Góra because my sporting results (I trained high jump) were so good that I was invited to continue my intensive athletics training while studying at VII Secondary School in a sports class. 

- And why the change of field? Why did you decide not to continue your sporting career? 

- In the middle of my third year of secondary school, I already had a serious knee injury in Zielona Góra. I had to revise my plans. I studied two subjects at UG - I started with physics, and after a year, I also started biology as an individual study. Towards the end of my studies, when I was still planning to enrol in mathematics, my academic supervisor prof Karol Taylor told me that it was overkill. He explained that the most important thing was to do a good PhD, no matter how many majors you had. I ended up doing physics, I was close to finishing biology, and I left mathematics and took up my PhD. 

- Why exactly did you choose physics?

- In secondary school, I only liked and studied physics and mathematics (I even participated in physics competitions, although without success). I did not apply myself to other subjects. I am dyslexic, and in those days this was not treated with understanding. I also had the choice to go to the AWF (with my results I could have gotten in there without an exam), but after a knee injury, I decided that this was not the right way to go. I was left with physics. People who are extremely talented in all subjects have a huge choice. I didn't have that choice. 

The sporting experience has given me a great deal in my academic career. Playing competitive sport, I had to train every day and, importantly, learn to lose. It is the same in science. Experiments don't work out and it's difficult to repeat them. This is very frustrating. In the case of molecular biology, which I eventually got into, about 90 % of experiments are unsuccessful, 10 % come out, and of that maybe 1 % are publishable, i.e. yield some new findings or conclusions. So the discipline of sport in science comes in handy.

- After your master's degree, you decided to stay and write your PhD, but - at the Medical University. Why?

- During my studies I was active in the opposition, which meant I couldn't work on my PhD at the University of Gdańsk. I chose the Medical Academy - it was subordinate to the Ministry of Health, while the university was subordinate to the Ministry of Education, and the ubiquitous police supervising both universities did not communicate with each other about the students. Thanks to this lack of information flow, I was formally admitted to doctoral studies at the Medical Academy in Gdańsk, but I continued to work on my PhD in prof. Karol Taylor's team at the University of Gdańsk.

- When you started your studies, did you plan to stay in academia?  

- I actually wanted to become a teacher. Later on, my aspirations grew - I thought about working as a university teacher, but to realise this, I had to do a PhD. I did my thesis in biophysics and my PhD in biochemistry - the molecular biology of viruses. In turn, my habilitation was in molecular biology.

- Shortly afterwards, you started working at the University of Gdańsk. Were there any attempts to obstruct your path?

- I had been active in the opposition since 1973, but at the end of the 1970s, I had to disengage a little from these activities to be able to finish my doctorate. Later on (after August 1980), I neglected my studies and took to creating Solidarity at the University of Gdańsk. I was vice-chairman and later chairman of the Works Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union. It was a huge burden. Scientifically, from 80 to 82, I, unfortunately, did not do much. I only identified the products of genes encoding heat shock proteins (I continued with this subject for the next 40 years). Anyway, at the beginning of my career at UG, I was employed in a technical position. They did not want me to teach students. It wasn't until the end of 1980 that I was immediately promoted from technical employee to assistant professor. Then came martial law and my career hung by a thread. Upon my return to Poland, after several years of scientific work in the States, attempts were made to stall my habilitation (negative opinion of the PZPR). In the end, however, it was accepted, but I was refused to be a docent. I then had to take an oath before the UG Senate, so I took it, but with the text changed by me. I refused to take the oath on socialism implemented in the People's Republic of Poland. I compared the system created by Stalin to that of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s and said what I could swear to a system that gave citizens freedom (limited by the freedom of other citizens), one that citizens trusted. In front of the Senate, I signed a document that the oath had been taken. No one disturbed me; only later did a ruckus break out.

- Did you lead the strike of staff and students triggered by the imposition of martial law? Weren't you afraid for yourself and them?

- I was afraid. That responsibility was a big one. I was 29 years old, which means I was not much older than the students taking part in the strike. It is one thing to risk my own life and career, and another to take a risk whose consequences will be felt by the students for whom I am responsible. As chairman, I banned students from going out after curfew and handing out leaflets. They did it anyway. 

Andrzej Radajewski during his performance at the 'Invincibles' meeting.

Andrzej Radajewski during his performance at the 'Invincibles' meeting.

- Recently, a meeting of participants in the 'Invincibles' strike was held at the University of Gdańsk. One of those present, Andrzej Radajewski, admitted that he was then sentenced to three years in prison for possessing 15 leaflets.

- Yes. I had been in the opposition much longer than most of the striking students (since 1973) and therefore knew what the consequences of such activity were. They were threatened with a punitive company and 'relegation' to the army. Two years out or a trial, as in the case of Andrzej Radajewski. That was the risk. At the end of the third day of the strike (counting from the moment martial law was declared), I received information that there was almost no one in the Gdańsk Shipyard and that I was to transfer students there. I did not agree. To me, this would have been an unwise move - in a situation where there were almost no shipyard workers, we were to replace them with students? After a stormy discussion inside the strike committee, we decided to suspend the strike. Some students nevertheless went to the shipyard.   

- During the National Academic Exchange Agency conference at UG in May, you mentioned that you had been in exile. Was this related to your participation in the university strike? 

- Yes, after the strike ended I didn't go home, I went into hiding. I helped to establish the underground Solidarity movement at the University of Gdańsk. I organised funds for the families of the internees and the families of Solidarity workers who lost their jobs overnight. I did a good job of hiding because UB officers came several times at night to various houses where I might have stayed, checking that I was not there. I then learned from my professor that if I revealed myself, I could go abroad. Consequently, after a few months of hiding, I went back to work and submitted the papers to go to the States, which I had delayed before martial law because of my commitment to Solidarity. After some difficulties, described by me in an interview conducted by Andrzej Kobos (Po drogach uczonych: z członków Polskiej Akademii Umiejętności rozmawiać Andrzej M. Kobos, Vol. 2, Polska Akademia Umiejętności), I received my passport, knowing that I would have difficulties returning to Poland. 

- What attracted you back to Poland? 

- Working in the States, I felt like a deserter to some extent. My colleagues were still fighting the communist regime, and I was doing what I liked best in luxurious conditions - working scientifically. At the beginning of my stay in the USA, I did a postdoc in Utah and then I worked at Stanford University, from where I applied and won a competition for a professorship at Utah University. After a couple of years of work, my friend prof. Cost Georgopoulos and I were awarded an automatic extension of our NIH grant for another five years. After the end of martial law in Poland, when I was no longer threatened with a sentence for leading a strike during it, I decided to return to Poland. At that time, I was given the opportunity to transfer (as a collaborative effort) some of the NIH grant money to one of the Max Planck Institutes, but I ended up using the funds while working at the University of Gdańsk upon my return to Poland. Most often this was done in such a way that the friendly director of the Institute would come to us in a large car full of reagents. Thanks to such help, I was able to set up my own scientific team at UG. It was then that we achieved our greatest scientific successes, reconstructing in vitro the labda virus DNA replication initiation system and showing that the heat shock proteins I had been working on in the USA had chaperone protein activity. This was in the years 88-91. 

- Then, from 1991, you were Vice-Rector for Science at the University of Gdańsk. What was the situation of Polish scientists during the transition period? 

- First of all, all science in Poland was terribly underfunded. Reagents were delivered six months after being ordered. There was no convertibility of zlotys into dollars. We didn't even dream of buying new apparatus, because we had trouble even repairing the old one. The grant system was non-existent. A complete degeneration. We in my team were only able to work because we were getting suitcases full of reagents from Germany and the States. I brought small apparatus to Poland as resettlement property (paying privately for its shipment). I employed excellent, enthusiastic young PhD students. The team I led was able to do real science. Our articles from that time appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) or Cell, the top journals in our field.

- What was the work of a Vice-Rector for science like, being this underfunded? 

- At that time, in the early 1990s, the Scientific Research Committee (KBN) was started. As pro-rector, I set up an internal grant system at UG with a budget for in-house research. The funds came from the KBN, but universities could manage them quite freely. We decided to create our own internal grant system. It wasn't a lot of money, but this programme was a revolution inside the university. It was mainly aimed at young people, which did not please some of the older professors. When they asked me about it, I told them to apply directly to the NSC for new funding and indeed the good ones managed to get money from this source. These were the first swallows of the grant system of financing science in Poland. 

- Since 2005, you have been the President of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP), what was your path to this position like? 

- While I was still in Gdańsk, I became a member of the KBN (after I stopped being a vice-rector of the UG) and had the opportunity to introduce and improve the system of evaluating grant applications. We also dealt with apparatus investments and the distribution of funds for statutory activities of scientific units. I became a member of PAS and PAU. Later, I was elected to the EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organisation) and other international academies and organisations, and there I learned to look at the research funding process from a European perspective. In 1999, after receiving the FNP Prize, I moved to Warsaw, where I won the competition for the position of Head of the Department of Molecular Biology at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. Together with my wife prof Alicja Żylicz, we built a completely new scientific team and changed our research focus. We were able to show that heat shock proteins are necessary for the p53 protein to inhibit cell transformation, i.e. act as a tumour suppressor. Interestingly, the same heat shock proteins promote tumour transformation when the p53 protein is altered (mutations in TP53). Six years after moving to Warsaw, I accepted the position of the FNP President in 2005, invited to take on this challenge by the long-standing President of the Foundation, the creator of its mission and prestige in our environment, prof. Maciej W. Grabski. I had to my credit important, internationally recognised research discoveries and considerable experience in managing scientific institutions, as well as working in Polish and foreign (e.g. ERC) committees granting funds for scientific research. I think it was also important that I was known for my critical views on the way the Polish science system functions, and I also had ideas on how we should change to make it better. 

- Is it difficult to run an organisation that is not funded by state money? 

- When I started working at the FNP, all its programme activities were financed from the Foundation's own funds. With such a budget at my disposal as the new president, I was only able to launch one new programme - it was the Focus programme. It offered funds for the creation of new scientific teams by young people. The name of the initiative (focus) was associated with the fact that each year we funded projects in only one field, e.g. astrophysics or molecular biology. Later, when Poland joined the European Union, there was a big discussion inside the Foundation as to whether we should apply for money from EU programmes. Previously, we did not benefit from any grants distributed by the state to remain independent. However, EU funds are distributed by the state and are public funds. We knew that if we reached for even a zloty from this source, it would involve significant interference from the public administration in the way we operated. However, we decided to apply for EU structural money - this offered the chance to obtain incomparably more funds than our own budget, so we could multiply our support for researchers and scientific teams working in Poland. Since 2008, we have been implementing new programmes developed by us and financed by EU funds (first under the Innovative Economy Operational Programme 2007-2011, with a budget of more than half a billion PLN, and now we are completing the 2014-2020 financial perspective, i.e. the Intelligent Development Operational Programme, with a budget of PLN 1.2 billion). Thanks to these funds, we have supported the scientific work of more than 9,000 scientists, created 14 centres of scientific excellence (the MAB programme), supported the establishment of 560 new research teams, hundreds of young people - winners of the Homing and First Team programmes - have returned from abroad to Poland. New tasks have led to the Foundation's team growing from around 25 to over 70 people. We now spend around €50 million a year, most of which is EU funding. This is very difficult money to spend, even more, difficult than money coming directly from the state budget. The bureaucracy is huge, but I still think it is worth it - we are probably the only country that has spent structural money not only on motorways or aquaparks but also on science. 

- You say you didn't want to get involved in politics anymore, but you agreed to serve as Bronisław Komorowski's social affairs advisor.

- I believe that social advice on science is and should be apolitical. When I advised President Komorowski, I certainly tried to be that way. After all, not everything the public does has to be qualified as political. I strongly protest against the appropriation of further territories of social life by political parties and the claim that these are the domain of politicians. Building civil society or funding science should not be appropriated by politicians. When I was Presidential Advisor at FNP, the idea of creating a state agency in Poland to finance scientific research through a grant system was born - materialised in the form of the National Science Centre (NCN). We wanted to create something similar to the ERC (European Research Council). Later, no longer an advisor to the President, I advised Prime Minister Gowin to create a system of research universities in our country. We led to ten universities receiving significant budgetary funding to conduct research, and another ten (including the University of Gdańsk) received more limited funding and are, so to speak, 'in the waiting room' for research university status. We had a long discussion with the rectors of Polish universities about how to carry this out along the lines of the Excellence Initiative in Germany.

- Should we try to emulate Western scientific solutions? 

- When it comes to science and its funding, we should follow the Anglo-Saxon systems (USA, UK, Australia) - because they simply work best. 'Old' Europe (with the exception of the Max Planck Society, of which I am a member of the Senate) is not doing so well. The Eastern Bloc countries, influenced by the USSR after World War II, are doing dismally in this respect. The Polish system of financing science should, above all, be more pro-equality. The point is to promote scientists who conduct reliable and ambitious research (each field has the tools to verify this on an international scale), and those who only pretend to do scientific work - should not be financed with public money. We should fund only very good projects, provide significant support to good universities whose graduates have no problem finding a job and which, beyond their profession, teach young people to think independently and to be independent. Such an approach, which promotes quality, is unfortunately very rare in Poland. The system, still burdened with pathologies from the times of the previous system and many mental barriers, is changing very slowly.  

- How do you see the future of Polish science? 

- If we want to talk about the future of science in Poland, we should first of all support the development of young scientists. If we do not create a system of financing science, which will attract to Poland talents from all over the world (both students, doctoral students and experienced researchers employed at Polish universities), it will be difficult to talk about the development of science practised in Poland and its high position in the world. That is why the Foundation runs the HOMING/POWROTY, FIRST TEAM programmes and finances the creation of centres of scientific excellence.

- You have actually studied at the University of Gdańsk since its inception. In your opinion, what is the most important change that has taken place at our university during this time? 

- The University of Gdańsk has built a beautiful campus in Oliwa. When I was a student there were two buildings there: Physics and Mathematics and Humanities. Now we need to work to fill this campus with great students and academic staff. How to do this? By investing in people in the right way. I believe that at any university, with a system of independent science funding in the form of competitive grants, 'gems' can be created. For example, quantum computing at UG is world-class. Thanks to the work of a couple of generations of quantum physicists, a real centre of excellence has been created at the UG that is known worldwide (it is currently funded by structural funds under the MAB programme of the FNP). There are fantastic people at universities in Gdańsk, Toruń or Poznań, outstanding scientists who need to be supported. My idea is for similar centres of excellence to operate stably in many places in Poland, and not just at the two largest, obviously excellent, universities, namely UW and UJ. There is still not enough scientific excellence in Poland. Places that attract scientific talent from all over the world, including young people who emigrated from Poland because they could not practice science here at the highest level. 

- Thank you for the interview.

- Thank you.

Marcel Jakubowski / Press Office UG