Dean of Tartu University: My actions were wrong

Raul Eamets
Raul Eamets Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

On behalf of the university, Raul Eamets, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Tartu, signed an agreement with Pere Sihtkapital, Isamaa backed foundation, granting access to the sensitive personal data of thousands of women. Pere Sihtkapital has now halted the survey that was initiated without permission from Tartu University.

Raul Eamets, why did you enter into a contract with Pere Sihtkapital for a study to be carried out by the University of Tartu?

That was a mistake. I wanted to speed up the entire process because this study had been planned for a long time and scientists were involved during the preparation. Obviously, I made a mistake, and I should have followed the instructions. I rushed things ahead.

Why couldn't Pere Sihtkapital ask for data directly from the population register? Why did the University of Tartu need to act as an intermediary?

Pere Sihtkapital was unable to do so due to a change in the law. This information can only be shared with institutions involved in research and development. Pere Sihtkapital should have signed an arrangement with the university that the study would be carried out by the institution; this is a scheme that works.

Why was it necessary to ask for these sensitive personal data in the first place? Couldn't the survey have been done without it?

Because this is a very specific survey, a random sample cannot be used. Because participation in the survey is entirely voluntary, such surveys are conducted on a regular basis. Clearly, there are certain instances where the register data does not provide a clear picture of the nature of the problem, so we must consult with people. This is not something unique.

You requested authorization to conduct the study from the university's ethics committee, but you couldn't wait. You began the survey before the committee had time to consider the request. Why?

The fact that the study was launched sooner surprised me. The question should be directed to the foundation's board of directors, which initiated it earlier. It was unquestionably a significant violation.

Have you received permission from the University of Tartu's ethics committee to conduct previous Pere Sihtkapital research?

Yes, but I have not been involved because I am not the chief executive of Pere Sihtkapital. It is certainly the case, that and you cannot do much research without this permission.

Did the survey on women's attitudes also require permission from the Data Protection Inspectorate?

I am not sure how to respond; this question should be addressed to the board of the Pere Sihtkapital. I am not familiar with the technical side.

After the University of Tartu became aware that you had entered into this agreement against their consent, have you had a conversation with Rector Toomas Asseri?

Yes, I have had that conversation. We talked about it and came to a common understanding that I had acted wrongly.

Will you continue as dean of the University of Tartu?

We have not yet discussed the issue in this way. There was no material damage, and it is not corrupt in the conventional sense. It was a violation of the procedural limitation and reputational harm resulted.

How do you make up to all the women whose details have ended up where they shouldn't have?

This requires discussion in the Pere Sihtkapital. This study will be suspended if it has not already been, but I cannot be more specific than that.

Pere Sihtkapital: We stopped the survey

On Saturday, Hillar Petersen, a member of Pere Sihtkapital's board, sent a letter to media outlets stating that Pere Sihtkapital had been in contact with both the human research ethics committee (University of Tartu) and the Data Protection Inspectorate prior to the start of the study, and that the Data Protection Inspectorate had previously written to Pere Sihtkapital stating that their permission was not necessary for this survey.

"Pere Sihtkapital has requested permission from the University of Tartu's human research ethics committee. Pere Sihtkapital apologizes for having misinterpreted the committee's position on the necessity of permission to begin the survey and for having begun the survey prior to obtaining such permission, as no special personal data were obtained from the population register. We have suspended the distribution of survey invitations until the ethics committee and the Data Protection Inspectorate have resolved the situation," Petersen said.

Petersen added that the data to carry out the survey had been requested in accordance with the law and there was no abuse.

"We understand that there are people who feel uncomfortable answering certain questions. We would like to explain that many of the questions in the survey's questionnaire have been represented in previous Estonian Family and Fertility Surveys, which are part of the survey program coordinated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE or UNECE)," Petersen said.


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Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa

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