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TU Rector: 60% of research funds go to ministries, not universities

Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu.
Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu. Source: University of Tartu

The state has failed to bring all the research money into the research system – which the finance minister has now proposed to use to fill the budget gap – because research funding has been distributed to various ministries instead of universities, Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu, told Vikerraadio.

Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev (Reform) has said on multiple occasions in recent days that he believes funding for research is not being utilized prudently. On Wednesday, he told "AK" that European funds designated for research during the recently concluded period remained unused.

Asser agrees that targeted funding for research is not reaching its intended recipients.

"The situation is that the state lacks the capacity to bring this money into research. Although I believe there is a need for it and potential capacity within the [political] system, the current procedures do not assure that money [gets into academia]. In retrospect, less than 0.8 percent of the 1 percent that we had for the first time in 2022 actually made it," Asser explained. He said that he did not have data for 2023, but the percentage is expected to be similar.

There are a number of reasons why the money does not reach the universities.

"Planning is done in one-year cycles and so ministries think in short and fragmented operational frameworks about how to use these resources," Asser continued.

He explained that the political decision has been made to allocate 40 percent of the additional [research] funds to the Ministry of Education and Research, 40 percent to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, and 20 percent for the implementation of the various ministries' research activities.

"With this distribution, there is no money going to universities to do basic research or to maintain the basic system," Asser said.

These resources that could be used for activities at Estonian institutions are made available in individual contracts of €80,000, although universities and researchers would prefer to establish multi-annual plans with financing certainty for several years.

Every year, the situation in universities worsens because of the way money is distributed. "At the moment, universities receive on average less than 20 percent of the basic funding, and most of it, or 60 percent, goes to various ministries with short-term projects. If this continues, it will not be sustainable," he said.

"Change is certainly needed in this system. In fact, the universities have proposed that the current backlog of unused resources should be used to strengthen the core funding of universities. At the University of Tartu, only 20 percent of the research budget is currently guaranteed by core funding, while the rest of the University of Tartu's research is supported by projects that have to raise their own funds. This is not sustainable," he emphasized.

"The resources are there, and it is clearly in our national interest to use the percentage earmarked for research in a dedicated way, the capacity is there," Asser said.

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Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa

Source: Interviewed by Lauri Varik

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