Estonian research funding still based on Soviet-era foreign relations

Books. Source: begemot_dn/Creative commons

Estonia was at the forefront of the transition to a Western system of competitive research funding in the early 1990s. However, the doctoral dissertation of the Estonian researcher demonstrates that, at least initially, the change was nominal and did not transcend Soviet-era practices of funding allocation. Moreover, social science and humanities scholars are currently entangled in a research funding structure that disregards their professional development needs.

"I have shown in my work that while the institutions of research funding have formally changed, the norms to which they adhere did not alter that much," says Teele Tõnismann, a researcher in political science and public administration at the University of Toulouse and TalTech, who has analyzed research funding schemes that took place in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania between 1988 and the mid-2010s.

Over recent decades, many governments have made efforts to allocate research funding based on international scientific excellence. In her recently defended doctorate thesis, Tõnismann looked at the introduction of competitive and excellence-based funding in social sciences and humanities in the Baltic region. Her theoretical work is supplemented with in-depth analyzes of interviews she conducted with policymakers and sociologists.

Tõnismann's research revealed that the reorganization of science funding in Estonia did not follow a single, externally imposed EU-centred policy, but came to stand through power struggles between local policy-making actors and was influenced by international connections and bilateral relationships the academics had already established by that time.

This means that the introduction of a competitive funding scheme in the social sciences and humanities occurred here primarily due to prior international orientation of local scientific elites, who were mostly from the field of exact sciences.

New in form, but content stayed the same

Tõnismann says the main source of research funding in the Soviet Union was the Academy of Sciences or industry. "It could vary depending on the location of research groups and the links that managers had developed with external industries."

The political turmoil that accompanied the Soviet Union's collapse had a profound effect on the scientific environment: "Funding from Moscow halted, previously thriving industries fell apart and the research budgets were cut or eliminated."

That is when the Baltic scientific communities came into action to reclaim their autonomy and free themselves from political control. Tõnismann says of the three Baltic states Estonia, compared to Latvia and Lithuania, was the fastest to adapt to international norms, both in public financing and competitive project grants.

"In my thesis, I showed that at the policy-making level the norms of internationalization and competitiveness were introduced by groups of people with already established international links," says Tõnismann. "In other words, change has only been brought about by those, who have themselves been already exposed to the structure of international research funding through their studies and work, and who have thereafter carried these principles back home."

"The transition happened easiest in Estonia because the scientists here traveled frequently also during the Soviet times. For different reasons, this was not the case for Latvian and Lithuanian scientists," says the researcher. The Estonian Academy of Sciences and the Communist Party leaders endorsed international communication, especially in the field of exact sciences, Tõnismann says, and thus there were many innovation-driven individuals in Estonia, who were willing and able to introduce the new standards already in the early 1990s.

However, this transformation was partially only formal.

In the early 1990s, national research funding councils were set up in Latvia and Estonia. "However, these councils awarded small grants to a large number of individual researchers, while only a selected few of the most important projects qualified for international peer-review practices," says Tõnismann, pointing to the stagnation of funding practices at the new institutions.

For example, in 1995 the Estonian Research Council (ETF) awarded €2.88 million in grants to 883 projects out of 1,211 proposals submitted, which means that two thirds of the projects received a grant.

"Targeted" or project-based funding became the only viable option for researchers in Estonia and has lost its original meaning as supplementary funding for top-tier research. "Despite the fact that we are talking about the transition to a market economy, and despite the fact that our institutional structures have changed accordingly, research funding regulations did not follow this transformation as fast," Tõnismann concludes.

If many publications are expected, then they ought to be produced

While the ETF used to distribute small project grants to a large number of scientists, its successor, the current Estonian Research Council (ETAG) is financing only a small number of scientific projects. "The researchers who have worked outside of Estonia understand very well how highly competitive research funding in Estonia is." In 2021, ETAG received a total of 335 grant applications, of which only 79, i.e. one-fourth, were funded.

Tõnismann says the reforms that shaped Estonia's research funding policy between 1988 and 2017 were largely designed by Estonian academic elites who were predominantly from the field of exact and natural sciences. "In my work, I have shown that the people involved in the research policy-making process are influenced by the norms established in their specific domains and by the networks they have formed during their academic studies and professional careers," she explains. In the case of Estonia, this means bilateral cooperation with Nordic research communities, the United States, and other Western European nations.

Tõnismann's research has been mainly focused on the impact of funding reforms on social science and humanities sector, with a narrow focus on sociologists' work. "I showed that they work pragmatically: if journal publications are expected, they make it happen," she says. Many sociologists during the reorganization of funding institutions devoted themselves to teaching and working in the public sector, i.e. on various applied projects. "So the actual work they do and publication requirements imposed on them often don't align at all," the researcher explains.

As the success of a grant application depends on a high volume of academic publications, researchers in social sciences and humanities select journals in which publication processes are handheld fast. However, in this way, the researchers lose precious time to fully focus on their work.

Tõnismann says, in such conditions, sociologists are opting for many different funding sources, which necessitates quickly changing research topics.

"I showed that researchers themselves do not see how these new regulations are supposed to improve the quality of their work," she says.

The Estonian situation is not as bad, however, as in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. "In Lithuania, for example, many local academic journals have been simply listed as international journals while at the same allowing their authors to continue publishing in their local language, which is keeping up with internationalization demands only nominally," Tõnismann says. In Latvia, Tõnismann says, there is barely any academic sociological research at all and sociologists are mainly engaged in applied projects.

Those transformation pitfalls are not unique to the Baltics. In general, in countries with a good base funding for all scientific research, project funding is a very good addition; whenever funding structure is not stable, it is not," the researcher says.

Pouring water into the populist's mill

Tõnismann says that such a funding system, which impedes social scientists and humanities scholars' development has consequences.

"It is not possible for Estonian sociologists and other social scientists to deal with social and governance-critical issues consistently," she explains, "As this type of work requires years of immersion."

Despite the presence of strong research groups in the Baltic region, most sociologists, Tõnismann says, still depend on European and international partners for funding, methodologies, and theories. This, unfortunately, adds to the unequal division of labor in the social sciences on a global scale.

"The hybrid financing of Baltic sociologists and their publication practices not only reflects a competitive research environment here but also the peripheral position of sociology in the national scientific funding hierarchies," Tõnismann says. This marginalization is also evident in the composition of academic communities, she adds: "Baltic sociologists are mostly women and have lower salaries than their colleagues from exact and natural sciences."

Tõnismann says that we should in particular be concerned with the extent that the academia can influence local politics. "We could, for example, discuss the rise of far-right political parties," she says. "When faced with relatively weak social science communities, they can easily monopolize social discourse with their political agendas," she says.

Given that Estonia is internationally prominent with its research policy reforms, Tõnismann says, we should be puzzled that the assertive influence of social sciences on public far-right wing discourse is still lacking.

Teele Tõnismann defended her Ph.D. thesis "Research Funding Reforms in the Baltic States: Institutional Heritage, Internationalisation and Competition from 1988 to mid-2010s" on June 13 at the University of Toulouse. Supervised by Professor Cécile Crespy from the University of Toulouse and Professor Rainer Kattel from Tallinn University of Technology.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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