Balance Problems in Science Policy
Knowledge-based and science-centred society is becoming another slogan enabling us to justify any decisions made in science policy. We should be aware and informed of all major scientific advances in the world, but at the same time Estonia is so small that we need to ask precise questions about what kind of science we should be developing with our limited resources. Unfortunately, posing this simple question and working out a strategy for the development of science was postponed since 1990 (when the Research and Development Council (RDC) was founded) until this year, when the project of the Estonian Research and Development Strategy reached the Riigikogu.
Estonian science circles have been constantly criticising the government for low levels of funding. A number of institutions for administration of science have been created with their participation, the functions of which are overlapping. The main concern has been the mechanism of distribution of science funding – the primary criteria being international competition, world-class performance, and publication in international journals, which is partly responsible for the principal balance problems in our science policy. Those problems involve very poor funding of applied and development-related research. Funding for R&D activities comes mainly from the state budget, while the private sector does not show great interest in investing money into Estonian science. In 1995, the proportion of public science funding in Estonia was one of the biggest in Europe. Money from the state budget accounted for 71% of science funding. In EU countries, the state provides only 30-40% of the total funding for R&D.
Prime Minister Mart Laar was right in his speech1 delivered to the Riigikogu at the end of 2000, when asserting that, while in Estonia the emphasis is on fundamental science that is funded primarily from the state budget, the reverse situation is true in developed countries where the emphasis is on development activities that are funded mainly by private enterprises. This ensures that R&D activities correspond better to actual needs. Both the Estonian higher education system and Estonian science are strongly biased towards fundamental research. It seems that even social scientists are more interested in doing science within the international fundamental research paradigm of natural sciences than in Estonian society’s local problems.
In the opinion of the author, Estonia suffers from a so-called scale disturbance. Models of big countries are copied if they are in line with corporate interests – such a tendency is also reflected in the multiplicity of institutions dealing with administration, co-ordination and funding of science. Although the RDC is responsible for science strategy and government counselling, the section dealing with development activities is virtually missing within the RDC.
The author is of the opinion that prerequisites for co-ordination are in place, but this positive aspect is threatened by the danger of corporativism, characteristic of small countries. Estonia needs a conceptual scheme for administrating science that would ensure the co-ordinated action of different administrative bodies and the transparency and objectivity of administration and funding. Science policy based on world-class performance and citation frequency must be balanced by a policy accounting for the specific needs of Estonia, which would lead to the establishment of applied and development-related research.2
In order to gain a better understanding of Estonian science and its funding and to allow for better co-ordination of science policy, the author proposes to substitute the Ministry of Education with the Ministry of Education and Science.
1According to the Research Organisation Act of the Republic of Estonia, the Prime Minister acts as Chairman of the RDC. http://www.riigikogu.ee/ems/stenograms/2000/12/t00120710-02.html (in Estonian).
2In the author’s view, a very interesting and thorough analysis of Estonian science has been presented by Hannu Hernesniemi (2000): Evaluation of Estonian Innovation System. H. Hernesniemi argues that Estonian science is not willing to consider its possibilities, and that constant emphasis on competition results in excursions into expensive areas where practical returns are associated with risks and where big and strong countries have evident advantages. Competition on the basis of scientific results themselves, as opposed to their technological and economic profitability, will certainly prioritise fundamental sciences. (The report is available from the Ministry of Education – e-mail: email@example.com.)