Marju Himma: R&D funding hike could end up benefiting politicians the most

Marju Himma.
Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

If scientists fail to demonstrate where their work benefits society, knowledge-based decisions will not be made and increased research and development funding will end up benefiting politicians, Marju Himma finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Last Tuesday brought news that the government aims to boost research and development funding to 1 percent of GDP in next year's state budget. Many Estonian scientists exclaimed "at last!" in social media posts.

I was also more than surprised, considering it remained beyond the grasp of governments for a decade, while it was now done in the conditions of a devious crisis. I commend the government for its decision both for what it is and in terms of political tactics.

However, it took a crisis where scientists could demonstrate why they are needed for R&D funding to grow.

When the topic of subpar R&D funding landed on the agenda more sharply three years ago, more than a few officials emphasized that in order to influence political will, scientists need to clearly demonstrate their benefit to society. An academic acquaintance of mine summed it up by reversing an old saying: "If you've laid the egg, you must also cluck."

The crisis provided the opportunity to highlight areas where officials and politicians come up short, while scientists have the solutions. But the crisis will pass eventually and to make sure the potential of research is not forgotten, one would be wise to start clucking now.

Smart hospital or just a hospital

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart talked about launching procurements for a new hospital in Tallinn last week. The cutting edge medical campus should be completed by 2026.

Because EU funds will be used, the project needs to qualify as a green economy investment, a shining example of science and technology. It should make use of our scientists' existing or ongoing research. The latter know-how can be exported, which is what many successful knowledge-based countries do.

A hospital to counter superbugs

Let us start with bacteria. I'm sure you've heard of drug-resistant bacteria or so-called superbugs that we cannot treat. Hospitals are chief among the places where they develop as pathogens come into contact with medicines. That is how they evolve into superbugs.

There is quite a bit of research being pursued in this field, with a remarkable group based in Estonia, working at the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Many countries are willing to procure technology that could help hospitals avoid superbugs. Perhaps the solution could come from Estonia?

Or what about Estonian materials scientists? They have developed different antimicrobial surface coatings. A Tartu-based research group recently secured funding for developing antimicrobial materials and is expected to produce a material than can kill the SARS CoV-2 virus (and perhaps also the flu virus) by the end of next year. It is to be hoped such a material to be invented by Estonians will cover the new hospital's door handles and handrails having been manufactured by an Estonian company.

According to Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik, the aim is to construct a medical campus that would not become an outbreak site in case of epidemics but would help stop the spread of the disease instead. However, cooperation between medical and social scientists is required for such solutions.

Cooperation between social scientists, city planners and transport specialists is needed to construct the medical campus. If the hospital is built in Lasnamäe, it will add to city center traffic. There will be environmental and social effects. To foresee and manage these effects, scientific analysis and solutions are needed.

Energy efficient wooden hospital

A hospital needs to be energy efficient as it operates 365 days a year. This means that the building cannot be allowed to waste energy and needs to be used sparingly and in an environmentally friendly fashion. Modern construction rules also require public buildings to be energy efficient.

Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) researchers are one of the best in the Nordic region when it comes to studying and designing energy efficient buildings.

It is not yet possible to ensure full energy coverage using renewable energy, while we could consider producing at least a part of the hospital's power locally. Why not cover the building's walls in film-like solar panels developed at TalTech that are incorporated into building materials? This would cater to researchers and companies that have adopted the technology.

Energy efficiency is about more than saving heat and power while they are being used. Construction materials must also be sparing and environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, concrete and glass have a considerable environmental footprint as manufacturing requires a lot of energy, power and other resources.

The greenest thing to do would be to build the hospital (at least partially) out of wood. More and more public buildings are made of wood in the Nordics, while it is also possible to construct wooden high-rises – it simply requires particular engineering know-how.

TalTech engineers and Estonian Academy of Arts architects who have been eagerly awaiting a chance to showcase their wooden architecture skills could work together to construct what could be an energy efficient and complex wooden building.

The relevant know-how would make its way to Estonian wooden houses manufacturers that could be involved in construction and obtain valuable knowledge from scientists they could export as an expensive service in the future.

Knowledge-based procurement?

The hospital is but a single example of where at least ten different research groups' existing work could be used and where the know-how would be put into practice mostly by Estonian companies. I wonder whether this aspect has been considered in the hospital's construction procurement?

Constructing a knowledge-based cutting edge hospital would see money invested in R&D as well as the €500 million it will cost to build the hospital remain in Estonia. Companies would develop new knowledge with which to create services for export – I'm sure that efficient and environmentally friendly hospitals are sought after everywhere in the world.

Even though we have achieved the magical 1 percent of GDP research and development funding, we should not forget that the scientific community will be capable of influencing political will only as long as scientists from different fields can work together and demonstrate where and how they can benefit society.

If the research community fails in this task, increased research funding will end up benefiting the government in earning the public's praise and pacifying researchers' protests.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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