No. 25




Quality of Science and Innovations

14 June 2014


RiTo No. 25, 2012

  • Mart Saarma

    Director of the Centre of Excellence in Molecular and Integrated Neuroscience Research at the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki, Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences

Education, scientific research, development of technology and innovations play an important role in the development of modern societies. Today, but even more tomorrow the wellbeing of the society and clean environment are dependent on the development of science, innovations and their practical applications.

Over the years, most of the economically advanced counties have made serious investments into research and development (R&D). Leading countries like Israel, Finland and Sweden are already now investing almost 4% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in R&D. After the restoration of independence, Estonia has been remarkably successful in the development of scientific research and technology. Estonian government and society have realized that investment into education, research and development will form a solid foundation for the development of prosperous society. In 2011 Estonia was investing 1.62% of its GDP into R&D, and about half of it came from the government and the other half from industry. Although the success in the development of scientific research and technology has been remarkable, the track record in generating new high-tech industry has been less impressive. Estonia has had several important priorities during the last twenty years, like developing its defence system, joining the EU and EMU, etc. In addition to that, the Estonian society has also faced two serious economic depressions. This undoubtedly has had impact on the development of high-tech industry. However, there are also several areas where additional changes are needed and restructuring of the existing attitudes and principles is required.

In the global perspective, universities are the main source of new breakthroughs, ideas, concepts and methods, and society should do everything to give them freedom to develop their own ideas and build up their competence. In addition to the generation of new ideas and concepts, universities have another important duty to educate and train young people who are competent to solve problems and develop new ideas in the academia and industry. Doctoral and postdoctoral training are important steps in academic career. Traditionally doctoral training has been the responsibility of individual professors and very little systematic education has been offered to the graduate students. Estonia has recently started with graduate schools and is gradually developing the system that is allowing recruitment of the best talents and offering them high quality training during 4 years. In many US and UK universities postdocs are the major force in generating new ideas and results. It is quite common that after defending their PhD thesis, young scientists spent 3–4 years in the laboratories or in the departments of other universities, usually in another country. The postdoctoral period is a crucial time for the development of scientific independence, and also for scientific maturation. Although in late eighties and early nineties many Estonian scientists worked abroad, currently there is tendency that only a small number of scientists spend their postdoctoral period abroad. It is very important to change that. In addition to the changes in doctoral and postdoctoral training, problems of scientific career development, research assessment and technology transfer need special attention. Further development of tenure track system, changes in the selection of professors and several types of research evaluations are recommended. Probably one of the critical areas for the future success of Estonia is the technology transfer and cooperation with industry. Quite often science and technology polices are based on the assumption that basic research is the main foundation for the applied research that then leads to technology development and marketed products. However, this so-called linear model is not working for radical innovations where conceptual breakthrough in basic research can be very rapidly transferred to the industry. Biotechnology has many good examples for such radical innovations. Following this misconception, universities are often under political pressure to deliver knowhow and technology for the direct benefit of society an industry. However, it should not be the benefit of industry and society to force universities to carry our applied research. There is a great risk to support very trivial research, which is often masked under popular and fashionable titles. Universities should generate new ideas and concepts and train top level specialists, who can then work and be very beneficial in the industry.

Estonia has made first important steps towards the developed and knowledge-based society. Success in scientific research is very encouraging and allows to conclude that Estonia has taken a right direction for the future.

Full article in Estonian