Last week, the Estonian Young Academy of Sciences (EYAS) elected a new council. Toomas Vaimann, the new president and distinguished research fellow at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), said that young scientists are plagued by overwork and uncertainty about future. In certain disciplines the issue of attracting students from Estonia has become so acute that it is difficult to maintain a talent pool.
Five thoughts from Toomas Vaimann
- The doctoral reform, which took effect in September of last year, increased the security of young researchers by ensuring employment contracts.
- The research community in Estonia is aging, and the number of foreign PhDs has multiplied exponentially in the past 15 years. While this prevents the demise of some disciplines, it brings into question the provision of higher education in Estonian on the long term.
- In terms of knowledge intensity, it will take Estonia a long time to catch up to Western Europe due to its small population and industrial sector. Nonetheless, it is not unrealistic that companies will invest 2 percent of GDP in R&D in the future.
- Advances in 3D-printing of electric motors show that Estonian researchers can quickly rise to the top of the world by making bold decisions.
- There is no longer a compelling argument for building smaller solar installations for profit only.
The Estonian Young Academy of Sciences (EYAS) was founded around the same time as the marches for science took place around the world, while Estonia had just formed a coalition of Center, IRL and SDE — in other words, society was in turmoil. Against this backdrop, I recall many members worrying that they did not come across as demanding or rebellious enough. Now the EYAS has a seat at the policymaking table. How much influence do you have in these meetings, and how does looking these people in the eyes affect you?
Our impact could be greater, but I believe we are making a difference.
Because EYAS is an organization of young researchers or young scientists [up to the age of 41] — it is such a grey area — we can afford to push more, but we do not go seeking confrontations. Our goal is not to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious, but to advocate for young people, their rights and their aspirations, as well as to better the chances and lives of young researchers.
For that you might need to make your presence and your views even more public.
We would like to, and we have already done a lot. For instance, during the pandemic period we developed a video series on health, and in the beginning of the year we released a video series on increasing environmental awareness. We have also published 19 lengthier articles in other publications, the most recent of which was [the daily] Õhtuleht.
Despite the fact that the situation is unquestionably better than it was a few years ago, the realm of science life remains somewhat unfamiliar to the general public. Question occasionally come up though, as to "why are they spending so much money, what are they doing?"
We would love to show the world who we are, what we do, what young Estonian researchers are up to, and the breadth of Estonian science.
In terms of attracting a new audience, Õhtuleht is a very successful choice.
Yes, but we are still concerned about how to reach today's younger audiences. How many of them watch "AK", read Õhtuleht, or browse [ERR's] Novaator? Someone will notice us, but the question is how many and how often.
A few months have passed since the Riigikogu elections. Jaak Aaviksoo, an academician, remarked shortly before that politicians had never made such generous promises before. In the field of science, however, the current coalition agreement only suggests to invest 1 percent of GDP in R&D, but also to encourage the private sector to contribute 2 percent. Higher education plans, which are intertwined with science, are admittedly more concrete. Was the lobbying of scientists not enough, or why such a lukewarm interest?
I do not think that the enthusiasm is that low. Perhaps science and higher education have recently been eclipsed by more prominent societal concerns. When comparing higher education to general education, for instance, teacher salaries have received considerable attention; however, no one has spoken about professors' salaries, even though sometimes get paid less than teachers.
Everyone discusses the issues of general education but higher education is often left out of the debate. Consider, for example, the pandemic crisis. The overwhelming majority of restrictions and exemptions applied to high schools. Adult education was routinely left out, despite being made up of a large number of senior coworkers and many other people. For example, the Tallinn University of Technology has about 10,000 students and 2,000 staff members.
I am certain that the current situation could be improved by us engaging in more committees, speaking up when possible and attempting to influence one, two or three individuals, political parties or government ministries. However, as in science, progress is incremental. Whether you say it is lobbying or something else, it takes time to develop.
Given the background of a system in which the state has little money and little interest in the problems of young academics, how probable is it that one day, on a good day, when you step down as EYAS leader, you would be satisfied with your job?
Yes, given our limited financing, we have to set our goals and the country's long-term strategy when addressing the issues that young researchers face.
Studies have shown that young researchers are overworked. They have a lot of responsibilities and salary prospects are not always too good.
Also, the scientific community tends to age, and we have a clear problem with generational turnover. Over the past 15 years, the number of foreign PhDs has essentially multiplied by ten. This is not a bad thing; rather, it is a very positive thing. Somebody has to do science.
However, our state, ministries and universities have agreed that higher education must be in Estonian. And as there are already problems with the succession of some disciplines, soon we will no longer be able to meet this objective.
As an applied scientist, I can see how, even at the master's level, we sometimes struggle to fill the technology and information and communication technology disciplines. The industry demands and requires a growing number of specialists. Approximately half of bachelor's degree students are already employed. They are unlikely to seek a master's degree right away, and even fewer would pursue a doctorate.
This is the kind of talent development that both universities and industry need, especially when we emphasize the need to be more innovative and for industry to be more knowledge-intensive.
While a PhD takes four years, a master's two, and a bachelor's three, a student must complete the entire cycle in about ten years. Now it is rather a question of what we can do over the next two decades to sustain or raise existing levels. Even with limited resources, it is certainly possible to advance by way of national policies, decisions and agreements.
But, not to be only negative, things have improved. For example, the doctoral reform required that all new PhD researchers be hired on a contract basis beginning in September of last year. This does provide some stability. They are no longer students, but rather researchers.
However, Estonia's most pressing issue remains how to get its citizens into higher levels of higher education, and then into the labor market or universities. Frankly, I have no idea how to accomplish this.
In animal experiments, if the same switch is toggled three or four times to deliver an electric shock to mice or rats, they incline to avoid it in the future. What was wrong with you that despite everything, you decided to connect your life to electricity and become an electrical engineer?
Apparently, I was not the brightest animal. This happens all too often to all of us, and yet I think we are still lacking in some perseverance. To be honest, I had no intention of studying electricity in the first place. I was going to attend the UT, but I wanted to major in telecommunications. Unfortunately, the competition was fierce that year, and I was unable to gain admission. Energy, primarily electrical engineering, was my second pick. I got in and kept going.
It was a good time to do so because, as in telecommunications, digitization was in full swing in the wider electrical and engineering sector. There was obviously a lot of work to be done. For my master's degree, I went to the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, where I worked on electrical machine failures. I was looking for a means to recognize if something was wrong with the equipment.
It turned out that there was not much activity in this field in Estonia at the time. After successfully defending my master's degree, I was offered the opportunity to do a PhD in the same field. I was not working in a university at the time, but in the private sector. In 2010, we were just coming out of the worst of the recession, so income did not make much of a difference to me. Why not, I reasoned. If that is what it takes, I will go for it.
So, it turns out that I have been at the university for almost 13 years now and I do not see this job ending. Together with Professor Ants Kallas, we managed to build our working group from a scratch. When I arrived, there was only one other PhD student and an emeritus professor in the room. And now I am curious to see what happens next here and whether anything fascinating can still be done.
The degree of innovation has increased in the field of electrical machinery and engineering. Even 3D printing or layering, which we started doing seven years ago, was dismissed as a fad by some. It was very difficult for us to even ask for funding because we did not even have anything to show for it. It was a weird thing that could work in principle, but no one was sure. We are now the world's leading research group in electric motor printing.
This is usually followed by a diagnostic or maintenance check. If an engine is being created, one would expect us to be able to prevent its failures. This is critical for the industry. When it comes to offshore wind farms, for example, the European Commission has been emphasizing for a long time that we need to find better means to do diagnostics.
Maintenance accounts for almost two-thirds of offshore wind farm fixed costs. About two-thirds of this is a little bundle that may not need to be dealt with. Because a ship or helicopter is frequently required to reach the wind farms, the costs are also huge. In the end, this is all reflected in the cost of electricity.
We are working on a solution that will allow us to inspect wind farms without going to them. Instead, we could upload the data to the cloud, run the algorithms, and then determine if maintenance is needed.
We have also started to take the first steps towards industrial application of 3D printing. In particular, we see potential uses in aerospace and drone applications. At least in theory, a tailor-made engine could be printed for any aircraft. All that is needed is to know certain constraints, such as how much power, for example, it has to have. From there, we can play with other parameters, materials and weights to produce much more efficient solutions. At the moment, none of the motors have a flawless shape because producing them is technically impossible. With a 3D printer, we are limited only by our imagination.
Because the field is in such its infancy, something completely new about it comes out worldwide or in our own lab every month. I am very pleased that we were able to get on the bandwagon at the right time. We are at the forefront of engineering science in the world in this field, although it is still a niche science, at least today. Looking to the future, however, there is a huge market potential to be exploited at some point.
Given that your group was awarded a national research prize last year, it seems that others no longer find these ideas to be so absurd or ridiculous.
Yes, it turns out that our ideas were not so foolish after all. At least after we had experimented with them for a while and realized that what is theoretically possible can be manufactured and printed. The rest of the world began to follow suit.
When we first proposed the concept of printing wires, many people thought we were joking. But now, in England alone, there are several groups that work specifically with copper. Along with that come metal and plastic mixtures. So we are not far from being able to build an entire engine in one go. It will not happen this year, or even in five years, but it will happen in the near future.
Because there are obvious risks involved, no industry typically wants to be first. However, 3D printing is already being used cautiously. For example, the Toyota Prius has 3D-printed components. The next major innovations will most likely happen in aircraft engineering, where the potential for mass reduction is crucial, but it is also important in many other areas. In a broader sense, we are currently electrifying everything from vehicles to ships to airplanes. That market will certainly exist.
You have also continued to deal with the business sector, delivering orders and providing expertise. What is the motivation behind this? Would you do this if you did not have previous experience in the private sector, or is the specialization so useful that everyone in the business can tell a researcher what they want?
Generally speaking, we are definitely engaged in applied science. I am a firm believer that engineering should have a practical outcome or at least be geared in that direction. As with ICT, I believe there is no other means for this research to contribute to the local, European or global economies. However, this cannot be accomplished without a strong partnership with the private sector.
Thus, the entire UT, not just our research division, collaborates with the private sector, although the proportion could be even higher. In fact, some research organizations are almost exclusively involved with the private sector, albeit for very specific reasons. In the case of energy networks, for example, it is very reasonable that Estonia has nearly one monopoly customer and one monopoly provider.
Based to the graphs in the "Estonian Science 2022" collection, the number of corporations that donate to science is very modest. This is likely due to the dearth of major industries, despite the presence of many startups. Usually the business models of startups do not permit them to invest significantly in science. If there were more manufacturing companies, the impact on the Estonian economy and the intensity of innovation would unquestionably increase. This would provide answers to many questions and solve many problems in science and higher education. At the very least, there would be a clear purpose for doing something.
However, I believe that interest from the private sector will grow with time. Again, now figures suggest that Estonia is among Europe's laggards in terms of industrial PhDs. The same is true for the amount of money that businesses invest in research. This must change as we want to be in the forefront and are ambitious as a country and as a nation. Otherwise, sooner or later, stagnation will set in. I would be delighted if this figure increased and firms understood that they did not have to head to Germany with every problem.
Obviously, there are some things that cannot be accomplished in Estonia due to the absence of highly specialized scientific subfields. We cannot have extensive and highly specialized research laboratories, even duplicative. Finally, there's the matter of who we're doing it for and who's paying for the bull. Nonetheless, we must not lose site of the fact that Estonia is still home to some incredibly fascinating scientific research. Here, an increasing number of small businesses with a focus on research and innovation have sprung up, either in collaboration with universities or employing university graduates.
Do you think, one day, it is going to be possible to meet the coalition agreement's 1+2 percent research budget target due to the advancement in some fields?
In some fields, I think this objective has been realized to a large extent. However, it has not yet been averaged and probably will not be for a while. But I believe it is possible in theory.
Nevertheless, Estonia is a small nation. Our market is small in terms of business, and our scientific development is lacking. In reality, only a handful of European Union nations are heavily invested in research: Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and perhaps the Czech Republic. However, the scope of their local industry is in no manner comparable to Estonia's. They are simply considerably bigger.
For most of the day today (Wednesday), the power exchange price is close to zero or even negative. How should this affect people? Why should they be motivated to install solar panels, increase domestic electricity generation, experiment with various microgrid solutions, and familiarize themselves with the rest of the buzzwords?
I have a feeling that people tend to have a short memory and sometimes don't change course quickly enough. I think that many people have already forgotten that one day not so long ago you had to pay four euros per kilowatt-hour of electricity. When subsidies started to be paid to consumers through universal packages, a very large number of people forgot why it was more sensible to do the washing at night. In turn, the return of habitual behavior forced gas plants to come on stream, which drove up prices on the stock market.
At the same time, we already have a huge amount of installed solar capacity. Even I put up my own solar panels and I do not regret my decision at all. The question now is what to do with your own distributed generation: do you want to make a lot of money out of it, or do you want to use it to cover your own needs and sell electricity to the grid as a last resort. In the latter case, it makes a lot of sense to put panels on the roof.
But I am not so sure that now is a good time to cover large fields with panels. It may only be economically viable for very large stations. On the other hand, maybe it is not such a bad thing if we do not build solar panels in fields and meadows now.
Thinking about the future of decentralized energy, large companies and countries are turning to large-scale wind farms. I don't see that these plans have changed in any way. We are being forced to shift our thinking towards the green side, even if not all of us want to. Of course, there are a number of questions, such as how much oil shale do we need, or whether it should all go to the chemical industry, and under what conditions is a nuclear power station worthwhile.
In short, generating electricity for yourself pays off. However, if you live in a two-room apartment and watch TV in the dark in the evenings, your electricity bill is already marginal. If you live in a place where solar panels can be installed, life can't get any worse.
Statistically speaking, only a handful of countries consume more electricity per capita than Estonia. What does this say? Is life in Estonia that good or is it telling of our apathy and inability to conserve energy?
I think the truth is halfway there. Certainly, life in Estonia is not bad. We often complain about one thing or another, but compared to the rest of the world, we live quite well. Second, a portion of our excessive electricity consumption is due to our location. In the northern latitudes, the weather can be dark and chilly, and we use a lot of electricity.
While there has been and continues to be a major shift in mentality, we come from a time when electricity was free. The average person had no reason to ponder how much something truly cost, whether it was a lot or a little, or if they should save in some way. It has now got to the point where there is a price for things. People have become more conscious of all forms of consumption, not just electricity. Recycling, Eco-consciousness, and environmentalism are now more ingrained in society.
We do not act particularly foolishly. Compared to more industrialized Western nations or the United States, we actually spend quite frugally. Compared to their consumer culture, our consumption is minimal. There is a big difference.
Editor: Kristina Kersa