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Jaak Aaviksoo: Our and research's common concerns

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: (Martin Dremljuga/ERR)

The opinions of researchers on the state and future of research in Estonia are contradictory — on one hand, significant progress has been recognized on the level of research and international competitiveness, while on the other, underfunding and too great a focus on projects are cause for complaint.

In addition to the opinions of researchers, a whole slew of analytical overviews by various research and development activity specialists exists in Estonia, indicating both strengths and weaknesses, as well as partners' predominantly critical statements about links between research and society.

A bystander can easily get the impression that a common position can't be formulated and that everyone praises, complains or criticizes each based on their own point of view. If you take a closer look, however, it is nonetheless possible to understand the sources of various statements and hopefully also offer solutions that stand to serve research and all of society.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, however, we must first begin more generally and attempt to more clearly define research-related concepts.

Research vs. research and development

The public generally understands research to be work done by researchers motivated primarily by curiosity. The ultimate goal of this kind of research and the researchers involved in it is to obtain new knowledge about the world around us — including nature, humans and society — as well as make the results available by means of research articles, whose quality, in turn, is assured by peer review, i.e. recognition from others who are experts in the same field. A natural prerequisite for such research is also academic freedom in the choice of one's research.

Parallel to research limited thus, however, exists the considerably broader — though likewise more vague — term "research and development," which represents scientific method-based targeted socio-economic activity among other human activity. In modern (science-based?) society, it is precisely broadly-defined research and development activity and the associated innovation that are considered a driver of socio-economic development.

Differences between these concepts are more understandable when one understands the differences in meaning between the English-language terms "science," "research," "(technological) development" and "innovation." In short, and simply, one can say that they are all based on the scientific method, with differences occurring in the goal of the application of said method and links to other human activities.

Research in the narrower sense described above includes investigator driven frontier research, curiosity driven research and blue skies research, while research and development, or R&D for short (known in British English as research, technological development and innovation, or RTDI) also includes socio-economic strategic research, applied research and experimental development as defined in the OECD's Frascati Manual, which is an internationally recognized and comparable basis for scientific research.

On the basis of the aforementioned, it would probably be more relevant if we used R&D as the English-language equivalent for the Estonian "uurimis- ja arendustegevus" [directly translated, "research and development activity"], not "teadus- ja arendustegevus" [directly translated, "science and development activity"]. To explain the difference: in order to cope with any problem or challenge that arises, one can, but does not have to, do science; it is, however, always wise to first investigate and test things and only thereafter go after a solution. This is why I will henceforth use the acronym R&D in this text, which should help increase comprehension.

Now it will hopefully also be possible to understand claims that the majority of R&D activity is not aimed at publishing, even less so at referencing research articles. University professors and researchers make up a small percentage of people involved in R&D, and the majority of R&D is born of entrepreneurship and in the interest thereof. The OECD estimates that in developed countries, 60 percent of R&D is conducted in business, 20 percent in universities, ten percent in state agencies and ten percent in the nonprofit sector. At the same time, all of the aforementioned does not mean that publicly funded and accessible academic research does not make up the strategically most important and influential (most valuable?) part of R&D. Nobel Prize-winning discoveries shift the boundaries not only of science, but also of civilization; added to these are the results of the primarily curiosity driven senior research conducted by (research) university professors, which reach society by way of articles and university students, but this still represents just the tip of the R&D iceberg.

R&D as a global socio-economic phenomenon, based on the scientific method's ability to increase economic and national competitiveness, is in developed society organically linked to other areas of life, based largely on their needs and serving society primarily by changing the world, not simply explaining it.

One example — even of the 2,500 employees at CERN, the world-renowned top research center, just three percent are physicists seeking to unlock nature's secrets; 41 percent of employees are applied researchers and engineers, 35 percent are technicians and the remaining 21 percent administrative employees and officials. So it is understandable that the Higgs boson was discovered and internet invented at CERN.

In order to understand the background, it is worth considering how the U.S. and the EU allocates its R&D resources and what global trends exist in R&D funding.

A broad consensus exists that R&D has market failures and thus should be funded by the public sector, but an equal consensus also exists that the private sector should contribute approximately twice as much — the goal is one percent of the GDP from the public and two percent of the GDP from the private sector. This has been a (formal?) political goal both in the EU and Estonia for more than two decades, although movement in this direction is more than frustrating for both sides (true, Nordic countries are an exception here).

It is worth noting, however, that while the level of public-sector R&D funding in Estonia (approximately 0.8 percent of the GDP) falls short of the goal amount (and is unfortunately decreasing), it is nonetheless at the same level as U.S. funding and among the top five in the EU. What should be cause for concern and consideration is the fact that when it comes to businesses' R&D funding, we fall two to three times short of both Europe and the U.S.

Where does the money go?

Likewise politically significant is where public sector R&D funding is directed. In the U.S., defense research is in first place, accounting for approximately 50 percent of public funding, followed by targeted research (health, energy, space, food, etc.) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the primary source of funding for curiosity driven research, which receives nearly five percent of all federal research budget funding.

Europe's equivalent of the NSF is the European Research Council (ERC), which has a budget of approximately €16 billion, or 20 percent of the EU's nearly €80 billion Research and Innovation program, which is known by the name of Horizon 2020. An analysis evaluating global R&D funding perspectives foresees growth in the coming years in the fields of applied research and technological development, mainly as a result of increasing global economic competition.

It is important to add for the sake of balancing out the aforementioned that a large degree of end users of various R&D-related financial allocations, including those for defense-related R&D, are nonetheless university researchers and engineers who, with the support of and alongside academic research, are involved in scientific (applied) research dedicated to specific objectives.

It is also worth noting that a large degree of the knowledge and technology needed to produce personal computers, iPhones and many other personal devices was produced as a "side product" of the U.S.' defense-related R&D activity. It is good to know that Estonian researchers have also been involved in science-related so-called frontier research funded by the U.S.' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Changing policy

Based on the above, it is possible to seek a solution to issues with research highlighted by our own researchers. True, before reaching possible solutions, it would be worth noting a few historical observations.

First of all — legitimate complaints regarding research funding being largely project-based are the result of the initiative of specifically young researchers in the first years following the reestablishment of Estonia's independence, who opposed the Soviet financial model, which stably distributed money to existing institutions and individuals and did not allow for young people to demonstrate their academic abilities in an honest research project competition.

Second — changes that have occurred in the organization of research over the past two decades have for the most part been initiated by (more meritorious) scientists themselves, as the business sector and the remaining public sector have proven incapable of voicing their interests and research policy priorities and officials and politicians have, in the interests of keeping the peace, proceeded based first and foremost on the proposals of various research groups and institutions, not enforced some kind of research policy of their own against the wishes of the scientific community. This would lack political logic.

True, these changes have tended to favor strong (project-oriented) researchers with a stronger public position (and an h-index supporting this).

This policy has also led to success — the majority of Estonian research and researchers have achieved international visibility and been established as top research and top researchers. But this alone isn't enough, if we consider Estonian R&D and in particular its effects on society as a whole, if only a few dozen belong to the top one percent of researchers cited worldwide. Over 5,000 researchers and engineers in the Estonian public sector are involved in R&D, and the majority of their contributions should be more directly linked to society and the economy than simply via articles and university professors.

From problems to solutions

It is necessary to increase R&D funding — even inevitable in order to move toward increased productivity. But this bottleneck in growth isn't in state funding, but rather in the weakness of R&D in our private sector; if we are at the forefront of state funding in the EU, we are among the last when it comes to private-sector funding. Unfortunately, we don't even have a good overview of the state of R&D in the private sector — at least, it is not reflected in any reliable form in Statistics Estonia data.

State efforts to remedy the situation with EU funding have intensified links between research and business, but, for example, technology development centers (TAK) established with state support vanished as soon as public funding ceased. Insofar as the disappearing TAKs (including the genetic engineering-promoting "cancer-TAK" and materials technology-promoting "nano-TAK") apparently had weaker local business support, we have learned the lesson that state R&D funding should first and foremost be directed to where (initial) R&D capacity exists on the market-based level.

On a side note — general complaints directed at the business sector regarding the lack of involvement of research and researchers are made in vain, as a profit-seeking company will act based on its own economic interests. This is why the joint efforts of researchers and donors should be aimed specifically at jointly increasing economic benefits, rather than satisfying the needs of research itself. Based on the above, the recently launched NUTIKAS program, which encourages cooperation between business activity and universities, is definitely a step in the right direction and should be expanded upon.

Unfortunately, other public sector R&D activity, with the exception of the area of government of the Ministry of Education and Research, is likewise weak. In model countries, a large degree of R&D funding comes from outside of the Ministry of Research and is based on these ministries' fields of interest (e.g. public health, the economy, security). In Estonia, the rate of such funding is many times lower, which is why nearly 60 percent of R&D funding from the Estonian state budget is allocated to promoting research in general (compared to below 30 percent in Finland and below just ten percent in the U.S.).

Such a situation is, in part, the result of conscious choices (tying research to universities, the restructuring of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and branch research institutions) in order to increase the quality and productivity of R&D, and this was justified during a transition period during which capacity was lacking for socio-economic targeting in R&D. By now it would be wise to follow other states' example and change direction. Herein we must acknowledge the Ministry of Education and Research's RITA program, which aims to fill this gap.

Too many PhDs?

A solution must be found to another acute problem highlighted first and foremost by young researchers — there are not enough (secure) jobs for new PhDs, and hopes for successful calls for proposals continue to shrink.

Approximately 220 doctoral theses are defended each year in Estonia. When the goal was once set to reach 300 defenses every year, this was based on the assumption that half of these would go on to work outside of universities. In reality, these jobs don't exist, and so the increased pressure on academic jobs is understandable, especially in specialties in which doctoral studies are the most successful (yet for which there is often no demand whatsoever outside of universities).

This issue also clearly points to the need to better coordinate the direction of university research and societal expectations. Further state budget funding of these fields would apparently further exacerbate the problem. This situation bears a striking resemblance to Finland in the 1970s and 80s, when many young people with PhDs were forced to either significantly change fields or else seek employment abroad. In order to avoid exacerbating this issue, we should seriously consider developing a so-called industrial doctorate, in which development engineers or researchers already working in business or the public sector could combine their daily work with doctoral studies at a university, with said studies thereby contributing as directly as possible to development activities and the economy.

It is worth noting here that our (young) researchers are likewise undergoing very painful pressure to change the direction of their research or even their specialty. The primary value of a PhD is not in fact being the most knowledgeable on the world of one's dissertation topic, but rather the acquired ability to master the scientific method. If we take a broader look around, we will see all over the world that even repeatedly switching specialties is the rule rather than the exception.

It is also true that a young researcher must be prepared for this already in the course of their university studies and that, alongside narrowly specialty-focused activity, universities should devote much more attention to developing the necessary personal competencies [in their students].


We can apparently avoid the drop in state budget financing of R&D (in relative to the GDP) — such a promise was made by the Research and Development Council headed by the prime minister, anyway. Also agreed upon is the direction of its additional funding first and foremost to stable basic funding, which would enable the launch of a modern academic career system.

I know that the understanding — which, by the way, has been invariably repeated by all external experts to evaluate our R&D system over the past ten years — that closer ties are necessary between research and Estonian life has also reached the political decision-making level. Now it's time to await decisions and the resources needed to fulfill them. I would like to emphasize the following keywords: financing of applied research on a researcher-engineer (university-business) axis; industrial doctorate; extending the number of fields of research to be funded from four to six, together with the corresponding decision-making mechanisms; increasing ministries' R&D competencies.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I will add that the aforementioned in no way constitutes a proposal to abandon current R&D quality criteria — we still need bright peaks in research and curiosity driven front-line research and the adequate funding thereof. At the same time, research aimed at addressing practical issues should be required to meet equivalent quality requirements — applied research must be at least as high-quality as, or why not better than, curiosity driven research. And this should be the same in the humanities, natural sciences, engineering sciences, agricultural sciences as well as pedagogy.

At the same time, it is worth paying more attention to the aspect of R&D whose output manifests in increased productivity, increased export potential or simply a better life outside of the walls of the university. Through this, much of the 99 percent which does not fit into the one percent would also find work, pay and recognition. And, most importantly, by getting closer to people and their concerns, general support for researchers and other people involved in R&D would certainly grow, including through funding and jobs.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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