Scientific research in Estonia: a temporal perspective
In twenty-five years, Estonia has become a capable space nation. The intelligent and brave decisions of the 1990s on reorganising the network of research institutions, establishing a competition based system of research grants, introducing international expert analyses in assessing the performance indicators of research, and reshaping the decision making mechanism of higher education and research policy were instrumental in reshaping the Soviet style research system into a Western system in only a short time. Long-term strategic planning and strategic management increased state funding, and also supported the increasing presence of research in the private sector. A strong push towards the development of the research system has come from the EU Structural Funds. This has helped to create a contemporary research environment, improve the quality of research, and increase the overall volumes.
During the last decade, Estonia has risen among the top of the OECD countries with the fastest development rate by the volume of research papers. The quality of research in Estonia is also above the average global level. The top 10% of the most quoted research papers include 13.5% of all articles published by Estonian researchers.
Research in Estonia has become more international. Over two thirds of the published papers of our researchers have been written together with a foreign co-author. Estonian researchers have enjoyed outstanding success in the largest European research and innovation funding programme Horizon 2020.
Although the number of research workers has grown, we are still lagging behind developed countries. The formerly positive trend has been falling since 2012. The toughest challenge is increasing the number of private sector research workers. We need them to make the structure of our economy more knowledge intensive, and to increase productivity. Another challenge is keeping smart people in the public sector, or attracting them to Estonia in the first place.
Estonia’s Research and Development and Innovation Strategy 2014–2020 Knowledge-based Estonia (RDI Strategy) sets the objective of allocating three percent of the GDP to funding research and development by 2020. The relevant expenditure of the public sector should have reached one percent by 2015 already. Sadly, this objective has remained out of reach. We have come to a turning point in the basic research funding, where continuing on the same level will not allow us to keep employing the researchers we currently do, nor – and what is more important – attract talented young people to research work. This continues to make it even harder to achieve the main goal: increase the economic effect and the social role of research.
International studies on the links between research funding and economic growth have quite unanimously shown the strong positive impact of research funding on the economy. The volume and range of cooperation between businesses and research institutions has broadened over the last years. Examples abound on how methods used in research create new business opportunities. The best known among these are Transferwise, which offers good-value money transfers, and Lingvist, which has developed a revolutionary approach to language studies. Scientific research has an even wider impact on the society as a whole. After all, without a strong knowledge base or long-term investments into research it would have been impossible to introduce bone marrow transplanting, in vitro insemination, or other technologies that have become standard procedures in modern medicine.
The current RDI strategy gives us the best clues about what Estonia might be like in twenty-five years’ time. The objectives listed in the Strategy include high quality of research; it’s functioning for the benefit of the Estonian society and economy; making the economic structure more knowledge intensive; and pro-activity and visibility in international cooperation. We need to implement the Strategy to reach these objectives. By investing into research, we are guaranteed to reap the profits – and not just in the financial sense – for decades to come. Just as the choices made twenty-five years ago ensured the success of Estonian research, we need to make just as brave and intelligent decisions today, so that our ambitious objectives would become a reality in twenty-five years’ time.