Fraud and corruption may be threatening the integrity of computer science in Poland and damaging development of the next generation of students and academics. These troubles are highlighted by legal proceedings against a small number of academics accused of extorting PLN 1.75 million (US$ 464,000) in research grant funding but may run much deeper, with widespread wrongdoing allegedly being overlooked by academic and government authorities despite its impact on the computer science community.
Corruption around grant awards for science projects in Poland hit the news in October 2013 when Adam Jedynak (not his real name, in respect of Polish law), a professor and head of the now-closed Group of Artificial Intelligence and Algorithms of the Institute of Computer Engineering, Control and Robotics, of the Faculty of Electronics at Wroclaw University of Technology (Politechnika Wroclawska), and a well-known member of the computer science community in Poland and on the worldwide lecture circuit, was arrested. Jedynak was bailed out, and investigations into the extortion of grants and fake or plagiarized research were stepped up by the anti-corruption department of police headquarters in Wroclaw.
In April of this year, an indictment was handed down against Jedynak, five scientists in his team, and four other people. The trial of Jedynak and his co-defendants started in May; it may not be completed for months, or even years.
According to Marcin Kucharski of the District Prosecutor’s Office in Legnica, between 2005 and 2013 Jedynak inappropriately distributed grant money obtained from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education—later the National Science Center (Narodowe Centrum Nauki, or NCN), which took over grant awards in 2010—and allocated to finance six research projects.
The indictment stated Jedynak "acquired people with significant academic achievements for the projects. These people were entered as participants at the [grant application] stage of the competition, and then when the grant was awarded, they disappeared, and the specific task contracts were concluded by others." If found guilty of the fraud charges against him, Jedynak could face a prison sentence of as much as 15 years; the other defendants could face sentences of up to 10 years.
Jedynak and his associates purportedly took advantage of junior researchers to raise money for research projects that were never carried out. As a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Jedynak knew many influential people, among them professors allegedly willing to exchange favors that would improve their financial position and ensure that only the ‘right’ scientists were promoted or appointed to positions of authority in universities and other academic organizations.
Two of the scientists indicted with Jedynak had been helping police with their investigations. In 2012, Jedrzej Nozyk (not his real name, in respect of Polish law), a young scientist at Wroclaw University of Technology, wrote to the chancellor of the university explaining he had been threatened by Jedynak and was forced to sign a specific task contract for PLN 100,000 (US$26,000) that would be carried out by academics selected by Jedynak. These academics, Nozyk said, took the money, shared it or gave it all to Jedynak, but did not do any of the work. On the basis of Nozyk’s information, the university initiated an audit of projects with grants from Poland’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The audit reportedly showed money had been extorted, but the university took no remedial action.
The second scientist, Radomir Grudek (not his real name, in respect of Polish law), found himself in a similar situation and broke the silence about Jedynak’s alleged extortion of grant money to the local prosecutor’s office. This set police inquiries in motion, but also created a difficult situation for Grudek, who was working to become an associate professor through the process of habilitation. However, Jedynak was a member of the Scientific Council of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) Systems Research Institute, which selects the committee that considers candidates for habilitation (and one of Jedynak’s associates was chairman of the committee). Grudek’s habilitation was denied, but he appealed. A review of the appeal by a third party outside the inner circle, Pawel Idziak, a professor at Jagiellonian University, upheld Grudek’s arguments, noting three initial reviews of Grudek’s thesis were not written independently and repeated accusations made against him by Jedynak, including that he was a scientific fraud and had slandered others at the prosecutor’s office.
Jedynak’s alleged response to this situation was to attempt to discredit Grudek.
While Nozyk and Grudek were not the only ones allegedly threatened, manipulated, or coerced by Jedynak, the case against him is not something most academics and authorities in Poland want to talk about, although they are beginning to acknowledge it. Zbigniew Blocki, recently appointed director of the NCN, said, "Our agency indeed has to deal with this issue, although all the projects in question had been awarded before NCN was created; we simply inherited them and are supposed to control them. I can assure you that the problem has been completely rooted out at the level of new grant competitions, and that we are vigorously pursuing all the former irregularities. The matter is very delicate, also because of the pending legal proceedings: we are supporting prosecution in the ongoing trial."
Leszek Pacholski, former chancellor of the University of Wroclaw, speaks openly about the corruption in the hope it will be addressed. He said he has witnessed the influence of Jedynak and his associates a number of times.
On one occasion, Pacholski said, he was asked by the NCN to evaluate a report on research that had been funded by a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. When he was told the title of the project, he decided it was outside the scope of his expertise, but when he read an abstract of the report, he decided he could do the evaluation, as the project had been carried out at the routine level of work of an electrical engineer. Granting money for such a project was a scandal, he said. The chair of the panel that had awarded the grant for the project was Jedynak.
Similarly, Pacholski was given a booklet containing the results of a research project funded by the Ministry of Scientific Research and Information Technology; he said he found the quality of the content to be less than that of science articles published in newspapers. The chair of the panel that awarded the grant was an associate of Jedynak, who understood the grant proposal had little value and should not be assigned any money, but felt obliged to support the grant.
On another occasion, Pacholski sent a letter to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education noting the lack of professional integrity shown by members of the committee convened by the Scientific Council of the PAN Systems Research Institute to consider Grudek’s habilitation. Pacholski did not receive a reply to the letter; instead, it was forwarded to the PAN Systems Research Institute. Minutes of a meeting at the institute show a colleague of Jedynak’s reporting the habilitation process had been carried out correctly.
Pacholski worries that, despite the legal proceedings against Jedynak and other academics, the situation will not improve. "It is clear that something is going wrong, but people have agreed to close their eyes and pretend they don’t see anything. I believe the people who are responsible for science in Poland and the academic community will not pursue further investigations, although the police say they will make further investigations. The worst thing is that young people are learning that this is the way to approach scientific research. They are learning that the quality of research and the level of research required for promotion are not important, and that what is important is knowing the right people."
The police in Wroclaw indicate the case against Jedynak and his colleagues is only the tip of the iceberg; observers suggest there is a wider corruption ring operating across Poland that may be masterminded by someone other than Jedynak. Whatever the outcome of the trial, the integrity of the Polish computer science community has been compromised to an extent that could damage its standing on the world stage.
Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.