Professor Tarmo Soomere, who will shortly replace Richard Villems as the president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, says that although the present model of research funding has allowed Estonia to develop good scientific competence, it is no longer sustainable. One potential solution is to train "translators," who would mediate between research and industry.
Soomere told ERR's Vikerraadio that at the moment Estonian researchers are lacking no more than a few million euros but their worst days are yet to come. "Research in Estonia owes its good position to funds from abroad. In that sense the position of our research and the scheme by which it is funded differs from those of other developed countries."
It is a common practice in developed countries to spend around 2 percent of GDP on research. "About half of the money should come from the taxpayer and the other half from the industry, who commissions new solutions and has a strong research element," said Soomere. In Estonia, only around 0.8 percent of GDP goes toward research and the rest comes from funding bodies mainly located abroad.
Although the model is no longer sustainable, it has served Estonia well in the past. "We have built up exceptionally good competence that is our greatest asset. How to use it once the research funds are capped is a big challenge," he said and added that although the research reform ensured that the very best research teams no longer have to look abroad for funding, 25-33 percent of the rest have been left out in the cold after the first three-year funding cycle.
"This means, that those who could not secure funding, are out of the game for three to four years. In other words, research in the given field will stop, research teams will disband, and people will lose their jobs," he explained.
Although Soomere said that such people will no doubt find better employment, the competence associated with a specific field that took 10 or 20 years to build, will be lost.
One way to relieve the funding crisis would be to strengthen the connections between academia and the industry. "At present there seems to be a gap between academia, the state and its economy. It is as if they have a parallel motion and very few points of contact. But our industry needs the competence that we already have right here in Estonia, although, at present, this competence seems to be unable to sell itself to the industry. A sensible way out of this situation is to train "translators," he said.
Some PhD candidates are already offered courses in research management. "If they cannot find work in their own fields or they simply get bored of research, they could work as "translators" instead." Soomere added that highly skilled staff is a necessity if Estonia wants to attract foreign investors, and says the Estonian Employers' Confederations idea to create a training system, by which all those who are granted a student loan must work in Estonia for a specified period of time, is not an unreasonable one. Young people would have to start taking more responsibility for their strategic choices.
"At the moment the responsibility factor only kicks in after the completion of the degree course, if ever." Soomere illustrated this by saying that today, students who have obtained a bachelor's degree will have to work for years before they are judged fit to be academics, although such a decision could be made in the beginning of their PhD studies. "If we allow them to labor with no gain for years on end, it is a crime against our youth," he said.