ECFA in Poland

25 February 1999

In its continual tour of CERN Member States, the European Committee for Future Accelerators (ECFA) visited Poland recently. The venue was Cracow’s 600-year-old Jagiellonian University, the oldest institution for higher education in Poland and among the oldest in Europe.


Jagiellonian University’s tradition of natural sciences dates back to the 15th century, when its famous student Nicholas Copernicus revolutionized our view of the universe. Another student, five and a half centuries later, was Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, who had to receive clandestine education during the Second World War.

The ECFA participants were welcomed by the Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the University, Krzysztof Fialkowski, a theoretical particle physicist. The Jagiellonian University has a strong theoretical physics tradition and has some 40 theorists who carefully follow experimental results.

The University is also well known as the organizer of the Annual Cracow School of Theoretical Physics (Zakopane), that had its 38th session this year. Other schools of theoretical physics in southern Poland are the biennial Katowice School of Theoretical Physics and the annual Cracow Epiphany Conference on Particle Physics. These schools play an essential role in keeping Polish theorists at the forefront of knowledge. The international “Rochester” meeting, held in Warsaw in 1996, also helped put the nation on the world physics map.

Polish theoretical particle physics is very healthy, with about 160 tenured staff, with large concentrations in the Cracow and Warsaw regions, working on many different topics such as electroweak interactions, QCD, neutrino masses and mixing, physics at future accelerators, baryogenesis and cosmology.

In the Cracow region, experimental activities are carried out at the Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics as well as at the Faculty of Physics and Nuclear Techniques of the University of Mining and Metallurgy,
one of the largest academic schools of technology in Poland. These Institutes take part in several high-energy physics experiments at CERN: ATLAS, DELPHI, ALICE, and NA49 as well as EMU13. Moreover, the Cracow groups contribute to both the major experiments at the HERA accelerator at DESY and are in the PHOBOS Collaboration at RHIC, Brookhaven.

Another major centre for experimental research is Warsaw. The researchers from University of Warsaw, Warsaw University of Technology, the Andrzej Soltan Institute for Nuclear Studies, together with colleagues from Bialystok and Kielce, are contributing to several experiments at CERN: DELPHI, NA48, NA49, and WA98 as well as to CMS and ALICE. At DESY, researchers from Warsaw take part in ZEUS and in the TESLA project for the construction of an electron­positron linear collider.

About 190 Polish experimentalists, engineers and technicians are working at CERN and DESY. Around 50 more are involved in a large variety of experiments elsewhere, the biggest groups among them participating in heavy ion experiments to be carried out at RHIC and in the Pierre Auger Observatory air-shower project currently under construction.

A characteristic feature of Polish experimental groups has been their rather large number of highly qualified engineers and technicians. Polish scientists have therefore been able to contribute significantly to detector construction, maintenance and operation. Developing software for event simulation and reconstruction is another speciality. In a number of cases, Poles have made outstanding contributions to physics analysis.

Funding structure and academia

Polish universities are funded by the Ministry of National Education. However, to obtain research grants Polish physicists usually have to apply to the State Committee for Scientific Research (KBN), created in 1991. For institutes outside universities, the KBN may also cover salaries. KBN is independent and objective as it has no institutions of its own to finance. The main disadvantage is, however, that it has too little money for the wide spectrum of activities that fall within its responsibility. Polish scientists are unhappy that the percentage of the GNP allocated to research and development has been steadily decreasing, from 0.76% in 1991 to 0.47% in 1998.

A third major source of funding is the National Atomic Energy Agency (PAA) that supervises a number of Institutes in the atomic, nuclear and plasma physics sectors. It is also responsible for signing agreements with organizations such as CERN and DESY. From 1999 this body will be in charge of paying for the Polish participation in the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), Dubna, and CERN. Unfortunately state funding has been insufficient: “We are only getting 40% of what we need.”

Poles working at DESY have also had resources from the Polish­German Foundation as well as from the German Ministry of Research and Technology, which have made it possible for Polish scientists to work at DESY.

Low salaries

A particularity of the Polish system is that there are practically no fixed-term positions for researchers. A researcher is either a graduate student or is tenured. Low salaries are a major problem. Young people offered a permanent position in the academic sector find it difficult to make ends meet. Graduate students tend to accept hardship for four or five years as an investment in a more profitable future elsewhere. There are also serious difficulties in keeping technical staff. The Warsaw groups, for example, have lost a major proportion of their young and dynamic technical personnel. Another serious problem is that it is expensive to send graduate students to work at CERN.

Some of these points were stressed in a talk by PhD student Anna Stasto. She is a theorist working on QCD, structure functions and neutrino physics. A PhD student earns $200 monthly, about 40% of subsistence level, so many have to find part-time jobs. In spite of this, the number of students has increased. Most of them go on to find jobs at banks, computer and mobile phone companies etc. Only a minority end up as teachers at schools. Some international programmes for student mobility, particularly from Germany and sometimes from national funds, are a boon.

Naturally, the international collaboration in high-energy physics has been very important for raising the level of education of young people, including engineers, and for technology transfer.

Experimental work has led to interesting new partnerships. In Cracow, for example, researchers from the Institute of Nuclear Physics are collaborating with faculty specialists in electronics as well as with specialists in physics and nuclear techniques from the University of Mining and Metallurgy.

High-energy physics has also contributed in some unexpected ways. For example, the former Mayor of Cracow contributed to design work for the HI detector at DESY and the Vice-Mayor was responsible for the mechanical construction of the forward RICH detector in DELPHI.

There seems to be a great public interest in particle physics. A CERN Microcosm exhibition, “From Quarks to Stars”, organized in Cracow and Warsaw three years ago, was a tremendous success. In Cracow, it was visited by more than 25 000 people. Several leading Polish scientists are actively popularizing particle physics, and such efforts are greatly appreciated.

Curie effect

The spirit of Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) seems to prevail. She was the only person ever to receive Nobel prizes both in physics and in chemistry, in 1903 and 1911 respectively. That was a long time ago, yet Polish women still constitute a large fraction of physicists working in the field of experimental high energy physics – a Curie effect?

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