Opinion Festival: Should university offer exclusive service to business?

In 2021, Estonian companies set an all-time record for research and development activities.
In 2021, Estonian companies set an all-time record for research and development activities. Source: erin m / CC BY-NC 2.0

Participants at the Paide Opinion Festival debated "Should every company have its own scientist?" The development manager of a wood chemistry company, Peep Pitk, said universities should have research institutions that offer exclusive problem-solving services to businesses.

One of the topics of the panel discussion was the bottlenecks in cooperation between research institutions and businesses.

Marju Himma-Kadakas, media researcher and lecturer who chaired the discussion, said that unfortunately there is not much research-based entrepreneurship in Estonia, as there are few enterprises that collaborate with research institutes.

She explained that there are several reasons for this, including the fact that Estonia is dominated by small and medium-sized companies, which lack the resources to invest in research and development.

Karin Jaanson, chief executive officer of the Estonian Research Council (ETAG) , pointed out that looking at the statistics, the situation has improved considerably over the years.

Statistics Estonia reports that 370 Estonian businesses invested in research and development in 2021.

"In 2021, companies set a record for research and development activities. This is happening slowly because the base is low, but the number of companies investing in research is growing. Of course, the volume is small because we don't have the big corporations that western Europe has," Jaanson said. "On the other hand, Estonia has a fairly vibrant start-up landscape, where fundamental research is gaining prominence."

All the panelists agreed that there is also a shortage of applied researchers in universities. So people working in applied science have to divide their workload between a range of different tasks and projects. But Pitk emphasized that, in their cooperation with research institutions, companies would require researchers to focus exclusively on their product.

"We have been exploring various ways to collaborate with universities. For me, the greatest challenge is that there are no research institutions that provide such services: if I want a solution to a problem, I don't want to wait for a year. University researchers cannot just focus on a single task for the month and a half, for example," Pitk went on to explain.

"I would prefer to come to the university, explain my problem and then rely on one person to solve it. I want that one person focuses solely on my problem. I don't want them to do it in addition to 10 other projects and in 10 percent of their working time. There are really no research departments providing this type of service in universities at the moment," Pitk said.

At the same time, he raised the question of whether a research service with an applied output should at all be part of a university. "Perhaps we are getting to the point where the center for applied research will be an outlet for people with university degrees who do not stay in academia, but can provide a knowledge-based service to companies in need of innovation."

Himma-Kadakas also noted that applied research could have a role in the field of social sciences, in which she works, but there are simply not enough people to conduct such research. "People are assigned to 10 or more different projects. Very rarely can I immediately place something on my desk that will occupy me for the next month and a half," she said.

Mary-Liis Kütt, head of innovation at food oils start-up Äio, suggested that one solution could be to use students with lower degrees. " Of course, it depends on the quality of the research the company needs, but students are often very motivated because they want to get their degree and move up the career ladder," she said.

"In the past three months, a friend of mine created a product for a startup company that was extremely well researched in terms of its parameters. Another student went to work for a company, revamped the production processes, and now the company is able to save a significant amount of money on one process, because instead of two liters of antifoam, they have to add one," Kütt said.

The annual Opinion Festival took place in Paide last weekend, with over 150 debates. Topics included foreign policy, digital development, greening, employment, education and cultural issues.


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Editor: Rait Piir, Kristina Kersa

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