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Opinion: Academic elite administering Aaviksoo deck lashing on sinking ship

Dario Cavegn.
Dario Cavegn. Source: Author's own collection.

Recent revelations of the alleged misuse of European Union funds at one particular department at Taltech, formerly Tallinn University of Technology, are already resulting in a default, tried-and-tested, reaction and coping strategy at home. However, since the issue brings the union, more specifically the European Commission, into scope, doing so this time might be too little, too late, writes former ERR News managing editor Dario Cavegn.

Though it may be appropriate considering Taltech rector Aaviksoo's behavior over the past few days, a letter from high-profile alumni calling for his resignation is nothing more than an attempt to pillory him preemptively, ahead of the real scale of the scandal becoming public.

Time and again, the reflex is the same. Shoddy business surfaces, and the first reaction isn't to deal with the matter at hand, but to do more window dressing.

In and of itself, the funding issues of Estonian scientists and academics are nothing new. Plenty has been written and even more said about the near-impossible situation scientists find themselves in, forced to run the gauntlet of, by turns, university/internal, then national, and finally, European-level, bureaucracy.

None of which excuses fraud, of course.

The European funding mechanisms abused by the scheme recently exposed at Taltech's Ragnar Nurkse Institute at least structurally apply in exactly the same way everywhere else in Estonian academia. On top of that, there has been plenty of exchange of personnel between, for instance, the University of Tartu and Taltech, moving from the former to the latter, including the Ragnar Nurkse Institute. One of the globetrotters identified by whistleblower Keegan McBride, professor Wolfgang Drechsler, is one such example.

This alone makes it extremely unlikely that the abuse of EU funding is limited to a single institute at Taltech. On the contrary, with the same manipulations being both necessary to secure funding, and equally available to plenty of scientists, in fact the most likely scenario is that virtually everyone in Estonian academia has been on the fiddle.

Understandable, perhaps. Justifiable? That will be up to the authorities, including those at the EU level, who at this point will be looking into this prime example of member-state level abuse of European Commission money as well.

Whoever here in Estonia still assumes that this matter can be buried at the national, Estonian level is seriously mistaken. It has long traversed Estonia's borders.

Yet the first press conference following the exposure of the scheme as applied at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute was the opening salvo of just such a complacent reaction. Rector Jaak Aaviksoo bluntly lied to the journalists present, which was followed by steps taken at Taltech that can only be described as an attempt to rally the whole university to oppose whatever conclusions may be drawn from the scandal which could conceivably work to the disadvantage of the scientific community.

So there is the old defensive reflex again. Faced with the consequences of their own wrongdoing, and terrified by the likely eventual scale of what has begun to come to light, the academic elite in Estonia is hurrying to line up and identify a number of culprits as emphatically as possible—in the hope of halting what has already gained a lot of momentum.

Too much momentum, as they will find—especially considering that the fraudsters have messed with the European Commission, which for reasons of avoiding negative precedents alone, will have to react forcefully to what has been going on.

Aaviksoo may have to step down for the way he has handled the crisis, especially for his somewhat lax approach to dealing with the truth. But the rest of the Estonian scientific community would do better to think how to fix the problems at hand, rather than focusing on trying to shut people up or getting rid of them outright.

In other words, the former rectors, professors, and other big names who signed the most recent call for Aaviksoo's resignation should use their clout to try and find different solutions. Trying to keep the scandal small won't help any more.


ERR News always welcomes opinion pieces on all and any topical issues. Email submissions to [email protected].

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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