Tallinn University vice rector: We need to learn from research scandal

Katrin Niglas.
Katrin Niglas. Source: ERR

Both universities and researchers need to learn from the recent scandal, which has emerged following the Pere Sihtkapital study on childless women. They also need to be better able to explain it to the public, said Katrin Niglas, vice rector for research at Tallinn University.

"Certainly the universities involved, and others, will pay attention to cases like this in order to learn from it. The fact is, we all know that no crisis should be wasted. We have to learn [from this] and act," Niglas told ETV current affairs show "Ringvaade suvel."

"Particularly in the area of science ethics, it is perhaps easy to think in black and white terms that there are three basic principles, which are really so old-fashioned. However, as the society around us becomes more and more complex, if we take the example of the impact of artificial intelligence on all of us in our lives in general, but also on the people who do science, there are a lot of new topics and points of discussion that we all need to discuss together in regard to science ethics, and reach some common understandings," she added.

Niglas said access to data from the population register is clearly limited and that researchers would like to be able to use it even more and more freely. She went on to explain, that when universities ask for data, they have to prove the survey they are using has been structured in a reliable way, as well as justify what data is needed and why. In light of the Pere Sihtkapital scandal, Niglas stressed that a university should not request data without first receiving the permission of an ethics committee, particularly when that data is sensitive.

She also pointed out that the case involving the Pere Sihtkapital and the University of Tartu had breached existing regulations.

According to Estonian Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform), a number of people have already opted out of allowing their personal data to be used in the population register.

"It is always such a sad consequence of incidents like this. However, as I have already indicated, it is our job as research institutions and researchers to clarify these situations, not to bury our heads in the sand. As things stand now, the researchers who were involved have acknowledged that there was a significant breach [of regulations] in this respect. But in order to prevent them from happening in the future and to increase confidence [in scientific research], it is necessary to clarify the situation and to distinguish between different situations, because there are a lot of separate aspects of this situation at the moment," Niglas said.

"One is whether we should have even begun the study in the first place. And the other part of it, which is a substantive issue, is who can decide and assess whether a study structured in this way is permissible, and in what circumstances. Because if we, as researchers, were to investigate situations where there is no problem and no challenge, then perhaps we would not be fulfilling our purpose and be wasting taxpayers' money. After all, we want to look at issues, situations and trends where there is a problem about which it would be useful for all of us to know, [in the form of] evidence-based knowledge," explained Niglas.

"However, there can always be a small amount of potential vested interests or emotion [involved], and that's what the ethics committee is there for, to assess whether the outcome and the benefit to society of this research, outweighs that small amount," she added.

Riina Solman (Isamaa), who allocated €250,000 to the Pere Sihtkapital foundation when still serving as Estonia's public administration minister in March, has said that Pere Sihtkapital is the only foundation, which is seriously involved in measuring demographics in Estonia. However, Niglas disagrees.

"As a representative of a university, I can't really agree with a statement like that. Universities, and not least Tallinn University, which has a center for demography that has been active for decades, is internationally recognized and has also received high amounts of Estonian research funding for its research. The question now is still about that decision, at that moment in time, not today, but I think it was in 2019, when the decision was taken to establish this kind of foundation. However, in the future, I would recommend that we look more towards our research institutions, our universities, where these competencies are available, and ensure they have adequate funding," she said.

Niglas pointed out that the most recent academic study on the factors affecting childlessness and fertility in Estonia was carried out in 2014, and another study on this topic is currently being planned. She added, that there is a great need for studies with this type of focus in Estonia.

"It is understandable that social science studies have a very broad scope and that data that is not the focus of a specific study is also asked for as an aside and for background. However, internationally, there are clearly studies that are constantly being carried out that look at fertility trends, including childlessness."


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Editor: Michael Cole

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