Opinion: The elusive 1 percent

Lea Larin.
Lea Larin. Source: Postimees/Scanpix

News finally began to trickle in about what kind of decisions would shape Estonia's 2020-2023 state budget strategy after the results of the European Parliament elections were in. As it turns out, the future looks bleak, at least when it comes to research funding, writes Lea Larin, research editor for cultural magazine Sirp.

Last week, online news portals in Estonia published two main headlines side by side: "Government not to increase research funding to 1 percent of GDP" and "Alcohol excise duty to decrease 25 percent beginning July 1." These headlines became the butt of bitter jokes on social media, but the bigger picture is actually incredibly dark.

First, should the cost of alcohol fall, this will increase consumption, which in turn will lead to an uptick in health-related harm and deaths caused by alcohol. Estonia is already ranked third worldwide in alcohol-related deaths.

Second, it is already clear that the majority of goals included in the Estonian Research and Development and Innovation Strategy 2014-2020 (which likewise foresees research funding being increased to 1 percent of GDP) will remain unfulfilled, and we have dropped down to the third category on the European Innovation Scoreboard, joining other "moderately innovative" countries.

It's no wonder that Estonian researchers are frustrated. Just a reminder: last December, the chairs of nearly all leading political parties signed a research agreement in which they promised to support increasing public funding for research and development activity and innovation to 1 percent of GDP.

This promise was repeated in parties' election programs and was also included in the coalition agreement: "We will make it a goal to increase the level of state funding allocated to research and development activity to at least 1 percent of GDP."

To be fair, it must be said that similar promises have been included in the coalition agreements of the previous four governments, but the amount of funding being allocated to research has nonetheless fallen in proportion to GDP.

And so Estonian researchers have every right to be angry. The promise made to them has never been kept — the strategy adopted by the Riigikogu isn't being fulfilled, and the signatures on the 1-percent GDP funding agreement held for less than half a year.

Numbers not adding up

There is also a problem with the numbers. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) and Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Centre) are saying that an additional €152 million was allocated to research to maintain the current level of funding at 0.71 percent of GDP.

The problem with the numbers starts with the fact that a research budget level of 0.71 percent of GDP has not been achieved in recent years. According to the Estonian Research Council's latest figures, public sector research and development funding was 0.53 percent of GDP in 2017, totaling €125.3 million. In 2018, the research budget of the Ministry of Education and Research was €151 million, which will likely remain in the range of 0.5-0.6 percent of GDP.

Also, the €152 million in additional funding being allocated to research apparently already includes €30 million in EU structural funds coming in during the next funding period. This means that the Estonian public sector's actual contribution is just €122 million, which will be allocated in differing amounts over the next four years.

The sums, in any case, fall below what was hoped for and promised in the research agreement, according to which the public sector should have allocated a cumulative extra €46-47 million per year to research, or a total of approximately €282 million over the course of three years.

In the current situation, it is clear as day that the additional sums being allocated to research are such that overall funding will never catch up to the magical 1-percent mark as the GDP continues to grow.

Nonetheless, the government cannot be accused of being outright anti-research. Paradoxically, the coalition agreement includes an often overlooked item: "We will involve representatives of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in the decision-making process for all matters of major significance to the state."

Thus, academics can have their say regarding the future of the state, which is unprecedented on a global scale.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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