The government is planning to merge most of the country's laboratories into one institution. A new laboratory could be built in Tartu, where several labs are currently located.
Among other things, Estonia's national laboratories study bathing water quality, look for bacteria, analyze drug composition and soil density and employ more than 500 people.
But people alone are not enough, expensive equipment is also needed. "We have depreciated the equipment in the laboratories. The last major purchase of laboratory equipment was at the time of joining the European Union," Ülle Harak, head of the Public Administration and Public Service Department of the Ministry of Finance said.
The total budget of state laboratories is approximately €21 million. The investment need in the coming years is about €15 million.
"And we have also forwarded these needs to the Ministry of Finance every year," Hendrik Kuusk, undersecretary of Food Safety of the Ministry of Rural Affairs said. "But if we look at the country's financial opportunities at the present time, these investments have received very little, if any, funding," he said.
In 2017, the Ministry of Finance commissioned a study to assess how to optimize the work of laboratories. At the time, it became apparent that several laboratories were carrying out similar analyzes with similar equipment, and there could be less duplication.
In June this year, a new analysis was presented to the government, offering three options. The first option would be to combine laboratory support services, such as public procurement. Another option would be to systematize laboratory services by area. But the government preferred the third solution - to carryout a merger.
"And at the last meeting, the Minister of Rural Affairs was given the task of presenting an analysis based on the fact that at some point in the near future there will be one unified laboratory in the country and, of course, the private sector in need of a similar service," Kuusk said.
It is likely that five laboratories will be merged
It is likely that not all laboratories will be included. Ülle Harak said the laboratory at the Road Technology Center has established itself in the market and, as a state-owned company, also earns small dividends.
The laboratory of the Institute of Forensic Science is again quite specific, Hendrik Kuusk said.
"But, of course, the institute of forensic science has to offer a lot of services that could be of interest to other laboratories that already exist or to this theoretical one laboratory institution in the future," Kuusk said.
The final list should be presented to the government by the rural minister in November. Rather, the merging of the Environmental Research Center, the Agricultural Research Center, the Veterinary and Food Laboratory, and the Health and Medicines Agency is currently being considered.
The Laboratory Council and the Ministry of Rural Affairs are also consulting on the legal form of the new body. State agencies, companies and foundations have their strengths and weaknesses.
The financial plan must also be drawn up. Kuusk said laboratories must also provide such services that they do not pay for themselves.
"The laboratory must have equipment, it must have a trained staff, the methods must be accredited, validated, but in peacetime, so to speak, this laboratory equipment is not profitable," Kuusk said.
The laboratory needs permanent funding even after the investment has been made.
"And what is very important, if there is to be such a joint institution, it must also be active in the field of science that many of our laboratories already are today," Kuusk said.
A new building will be built in Tartu
It is not yet clear when the laboratories will be brought together under a common roof.
"Of course, it would ideally be good if all of them could be under one roof, but it is definitely a very long way to go to create such a joint laboratory for laboratories in the whole country," Harak said.
Kuusk said that both the laboratory of the Health Board and the veterinary and food laboratory work in very cramped conditions in Tartu. Thus, the state real estate limited company is thinking of building a joint Tartu laboratory building for these two or even more laboratories.
"Currently, the State Real Estate (RKAS) is already developing various projects," Kuusk said. "I've seen three or four versions, from merging two laboratories to merging six. The final versions will be decided by how much it makes sense to put these laboratories in one house."
RKAS has said that it would be able to build a new house in 2025. Harak hopes that the legal merge of the laboratories will be reached sooner.
"Maybe we have institutions where we can do this faster than 2025," Harak suggested.
Editor: Roberta Vaino