Academics Demand Revision of Research Funding
Urmas Sutrop, the director of the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI), has told ERR that constant underfunding has led to a situation where the Institute is now not only unable to sufficiently provide for the development of standard Estonian but is also forced to lay off some of its staff.
Surtop told ETV's Aktuaalne Kaamera, the evening news program, that in addition to project-based funding, EKI relies on a regular government grant that makes up about one-third of its annual budget. This grant has amounted to about 600,000 euros since 2007. Last spring the proposal to double this amount received a resolute no from the minister of education.
And with funding proposals falling through EKI's budget for 2015 is set to decrease by 60 percent. Andres Koppel, head of the Estonian Research Council, which is responsible for allocating funding to research projects, explains that one out of two institutional grant proposals that EKI submitted did not fulfill the quality requirements and the institute's funding will indeed dramatically decrease as a result.
Sutrop, however, insist that the problem permeates the entire system. "I daresay that Estonian research policy has failed. The reform that was undertaken has flopped. It never really served its aim. As always, they wanted the best but it turned out the worst," he says.
Piret Viires, a professor of Estonian literature and literary theory at Tallinn University, also said that the under-financing of sciences in Estonia is chronic and the result of changes to the funding system. Although she said she could not comment on EKI, she admits that the situation there is not unique and the problem lies deep in the system.
"That such a thing is happening to this specific institution is regrettable but it has also happened to others, whose projects have not received funding, despite getting high scores from internationally recognized experts," said Viires, citing the Estonian Literary Museum and the University of Tallinn as examples.
She finds that unless government funding for sciences is increased, the country will lose many of its leading academics.
"This situation cannot continue for it is destroying Estonian research. It will end with strong scholars, who have not secured funding in Estonia, leaving the country altogether. This is already the case," she said.
Sutrop, too, insists that the principles for funding institutions need to be revised. "One cannot say that research reform needs some nip and tuck, for it is pointless. The system requires fundamental changes. The earlier the better. If we wait until 2018 as has been mentioned, an important part of Estonian science will be gone by then."
The Estonian Research Council's Koppel agrees that the current funding system is outdated. He says that Estonia needs a new funding model that does not apply one set of judging principles to very different research institutions that serve different purposes. Whereas university research focuses on supplementing excellent teaching with quality data, the mission of government agencies like EKI, in addition to research, is to ensure the continued vitality of the Estonian language.
"These are rather different tasks and cannot be funded in the same way," says Koppel. Unfortunately, he said, the system currently means the two types of institutions "compete" with each other for financial resources. Research funding as it stands is highly competitive.
For those reasons the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Estonian universities and the Estonian Research Council have issued joint calls to have the research funding system revised. The appeal proposes an institutional base-funding coupled with competition-based project grants. The criteria for the former would take into account the constitutional aims that the qualifying institutions pursue.
Paul-Eerik Rummo, a member of the Cultural Affairs Committee of Parliament, told ERR radio news: "The entire scheme for research funding needs to be reconsidered and put on a more sensible ground. Looking at the bigger picture should provide better solutions to single issues," said Rummo. Next year's budget was sent to the Parliament last Wednesday.
Koppel also said that the government has become too reliant on relevant EU funds, which account for up to third of overall research budget. This means that the government funding for research has not increased since 2008. "We are dependent at the moment and for that reason we have forgotten to increase domestic contribution," says Koppel.
The Ministry of Education has now planned to increase research funding by 10 percent (2 million euros) in 2015. By 2020 the money spent on research and innovation should make up 3 percent of the state budget, one percentage point of which would come from government funds. At the moment that amount stands at under 1 percent of the state budget.