Estonian scientists excel despite limited funding

The Ahhaa Science Center in Tartu Photo: Postimees/Scanpix
6/19/2015 9:06 AM
Category: Sci-Tech

In an article published by the Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Jüri Allik likens the impressive development of Estonian science despite dwindling funding during the last decade to a miracle.

According to Allik in “Progress in Estonian Science”, there are 42 Estonia-affiliated scientists who have reached the top 1 percent of most influential scientists in the world. Two thirds of them are either biologists or ecologists, and three quarters are based in the University of Tartu (UT).

Based on bibliometric indicators, Estonia placed 16th in the Essential Science Indicators (ESI) High Quality Sciences Index of 86 countries or territories that published more than 4,000 papers in 11,000 indexed journals between 2004-2014. The ranking was topped by Iceland and Switzerland, with Estonia in the company of Germany, Australia, France and the UK.

Estonian science has undergone significant progress during the last 11 years. For the first time, the average number of citations per paper of Estonian researchers is 5 percent higher than the world average and their impact the greatest of all former Soviet states.

In the 2004-2014 period, Estonia occupied 27th position in terms of impact. Every paper authored by at least one Estonian scientist was cited 12.17 times, compared to 11.59 world average. The impact of Estonian papers has increased an impressive 54.7 percent over the last seven years, with the universities doing especially well in the fields of environment and ecology, plant and animal science, clinical medicine, and molecular biology and genetics.

However, on the downside, only four Estonian institutions are among world leaders in at least one discipline. University of Tartu has reached the top 1 percent in just nine out of 22 different disciplines, Estonian University of Life Sciences in two, and both the National Institute of Health Development and National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in one.

"It is even more disturbing that two other Estonian universities – Tallinn University of Technology and Tallinn University (TU) – failed to reach the top 1 percent in any of 22 fields of science," Allik found in his analysis. "The reason is simply that researchers working in these two universities failed to publish enough influential papers."

Errki Truve, TUT Vice-Rector for Research, told ERR Novaator the statistics are indeed correct, if misleading, for they do not reflect the average level of research and teaching in different institutions. This, however, is much more important from the vantage point of the students. We need top scientists, but their number is not the only thing that indicates how good a university is compared to the others, he reasoned.

TU, as a university which is more focused on humanities and social sciences, does not qualify in most of the 22 fields covered by the EIS at all, said TU Vice-Rector for Research Karin Niglas.

Yet, all things considered, "Estonia is a telling example how an outstanding growth in the quality of scientific publications was achieved in spite of diminishing financial support," Allik concluded, adding that the trend "belongs to a category of miracles." Although one should be wary of using Ernest Rutherford's famous quote “We don’t have money, so we have to think” to explain this phenomenon.

In his opinion, one of the key reasons for Estonia's success is the use of impartial foreign experts to help determine the recipients of highly competitive project-based funding. The other important aspect is the autonomy of funding bodies from non-scientific institutions.

M. Oll

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