Isamaa foundation conducts unethical survey on behalf of Tartu University

People in Tallinn.
People in Tallinn. Source: Inimesed Tallinnas.

Pere Sihtkapital, a population policy think tank backed by Isamaa, obtained the information of tens of thousands of childless Estonian women from the Population Register, and sent them a questionnaire containing personal and sensitive questions, such as why they do not have children. The Data Protection Inspectorate deemed the survey problematic and the University of Tartu said the study is not in accordance with good scientific practice and lacks approval from the ethics committee.

Beginning of August, thousands of childless Estonian women received a questionnaire inquiring why they have not yet had children.

"They simply want to know why the situation is as it is, if there are economic or health-related reasons for people of 'my age' who do not have children. /.../ It was indicated that all information was obtained from the population register and that was a major problem for me, as I see it a clear invasion of privacy," Maria, who received the survey, said.

As Maria believed the survey to be unethical, she did not respond.

Thousands of women who have more than one child received a similar survey with different questions.

The Data Protection Inspectorate is also concerned about the survey.

"For instance, they ask about a woman's sexual preferences, political preferences, religious preferences and worldview. These constitute a special category or highly sensitive personal data," said Maarja Kirss, the area director for the inspectorate.

The Data Protection Inspectorate advises women not to reply to these requests and is in the process of gathering additional information to assess whether legal action is needed.

The Ministry of the Interior manages the Population Register, which provided the surveyors with the data; however, they also have to determine whether the data request had a legal basis, as it was the most sensitive personal data on women that was released for this study.

"They obtained ID's, email addresses and phone numbers, in case they had to contact their respondents again. /.../ Except in cases where a service is provided to a public authority, such details are usually not issued for legitimate interest surveys. And in this case it was the University of Tartu that commissioned the service, the survey, so to speak," Mairis Kungla, adviser at the population operations department of the Ministry of the Interior, explained.

In other words, the survey companies usually do not have access to the personal identifying information and telephone numbers contained in the population register. The winning card was Tartu University. However, the University of Tartu was not mentioned in the letter sent to the survey participants. As survey providers, it only mentions RAIT Faktum & Ariko and Pere Sihtkapital.

Allan Puur, a member of the foundation's board of directors and co-author of the survey, as well as a professor of population studies at Tallinn University, spoke to "AK" on behalf of the foundation.

When asked why the University of Tartu, and not the Pere Sihtkapital, requested data from the population register, Puur said, "It probably has to do with bureaucratic solutions and questions as to why such a solution is necessary."

Pere Sihtkapital and the University of Tartu are linked through Raul Eamets, who sits on the foundation's board and is dean of the university's faculty of social sciences. It was Eamets who signed the contract with the Pere Sihtkapital on behalf of the University of Tartu and approved the release of thousands of women's personal data that would otherwise have been withheld from the researchers.

Pere Sihtkapital was established by the Isamaa party and received one million euros from the party in 2019 as a so-called umbrella fund to do research.

Pere Sihtkapital (family foundation) is a foundation whose mission is to promote the sustainability of the Estonian population. These investigations are one of the primary means by which the foundation attempts to achieve its objective, Puur said.

The objective, according to him, is to make the survey results accessible to as many people as possible.

If another researchers-analysts, for example, want to use this raw data, it can be negotiated and used as well, Puur said.

In addition to Puur and Eamets, Pere Sihtkapital's advisory board consists of Katrin Kiisk, a former advisor to former Isamaa Justice Minister Lea Danilson-Järg, Parvel Pruunsild, a major Isamaa donor, Monika Haukanmm from the Center Party, and Tarmo Soomere, the president of the academy of sciences.

This type of research must also be approved by the ethics committee. The secretary of the ethics committee at the University of Tartu told "AK" that the study's authors have submitted a request for permission, but it has not yet been reviewed. Therefore, the survey was initiated without permission.

The study has not been approved by the University of Tartu

The University of Tartu made a written appeal to "AK" stating that it has not approved the study.

The university explained that Estonian people have been invited to take part in a survey by Pere Sihtkapital SA, for which the foundation has used an unlawful contract on behalf of the University of Tartu to ask for people's data from the population register.

As far as the University of Tartu is aware, Pere Sihtkapital SA approached Raul Eamets, a member of the board of the same foundation and dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Tartu, this spring with a proposal to sign a cooperation agreement with the university to enable the foundation to request data from the population register for research purposes.

The Dean received a legal assessment from the university that, as the University was not a material partner in the study, the university could not enter into such an agreement.

The university pointed out that on Friday, August 11, it emerged that the dean had nevertheless signed the contract, in breach of the anti-corruption law and university procedures, and in breach of the principles of research ethics.

"We have to acknowledge with regret that the dean exceeded his authority in finalizing the agreement, despite the university's position that such an agreement should not be reached," said Professor Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu.

"This is a gross misconduct and the University unequivocally condemns such behavior. We want the people who received the invitation to participate in the study to be aware that the study is not in accordance with good scientific practice, that the University of Tartu has no role in conducting it, and that the study does not have the permission of the University of Tartu human research ethics committee," Asser added.

The Rector added that as the situation has only just come to the attention of the university, all the circumstances must first be clarified in order to decide what the university's next steps should be.


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Editor: Merili Nael, Kristina Kersa

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