Brussels, Apr 2004
Many politicians in the EU acceding countries of Central and Eastern Europe are proud to acknowledge that they have pockets of research excellence in their countries, and that they have come a long way since the fall of communism. However, many of these same politicians are not too proud to admit that they still need a little help from their neighbours in the older Member States.
Ene Ergma, President of the Estonian Parliament and a scientist herself, is one such politician. She spoke to CORDIS News on 26 April of the problems still dogging Estonian research, and her hopes for the future following enlargement.
'All the acceding countries have the same problem,' said Professor Ergma. 'The main problem is infrastructure. Our salaries are much lower than those in the old Member States, but our cost of living is lower. However, if you want to buy something, for example an apparatus or some devices, you need to use the same amount of money, and this is a huge problem.' She then emphasised that Estonia now has the same standard of living as the western Member States.
But if we cast our minds back to the situation in Estonia, and other countries to the east of the iron curtain, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is clear that huge steps forwards have been made.
'The situation was quite poor in the Soviet Union, and ten years after liberation, all of our infrastructure is really not in a very good condition,' said Professor Ergma. But the outlook is positive: 'We hope to launch next year a programme for infrastructure. For us, it's a lot of money that we need, but for those outside of Estonia, it's not a lot of money.' Estonia's research budget is currently three billion euro, said Professor Ergma. According to the Commission's 'key figures', research expenditure in 2001 represented 0.79 per cent of GDP, although Estonia did have the highest growth rate for research spending between 1997 and 2001 out of all the acceding countries, and all but one (Greece) of the Member States.
This is why Professor Ergma would like to see Estonia and the other acceding countries benefiting from the EU's Structural Funds, traditionally used as the financial tools of the EU's cohesion policy. She regards this option as provocative, and is insistent that in order to be competitive, the European Research Area (ERA) requires more investment.
However, Estonia is not waiting for enlargement to solve all of its problems. Next year the government will introduce a range of new instruments aimed at strengthening the country's research base. The initiatives include establishing new industrial research and technology centres, graduate schools, a new grant system and a programme to send students abroad. 'I think these measures will improve our research and development,' said Professor Ergma.
In addition to infrastructure, Estonia is seeking to address other challenges identified as impacting upon research. One of the largest problems facing the country, according to Professor Ergma, is the lack of interest among students in science subjects. The majority are currently opting for law, business and social affairs degrees. Professor Ergma also identifies increasing the number of women involved in science as a priority.
Another problem, in no way unique to Estonia, is the lack of private investment in research and development (R&D). 'The private sector is still not interested in investing in R&D, and I am not optimistic that things will change rapidly,' said Professor Ergma.
The last major challenge identified by the Parliament President is the fact that 'Young researchers spend too much time abroad.'
Brain drain may be exacerbated by enlargement, believes Professor Ergma, but she is also hopeful that EU funding, combined with the emerging ERA, will reduce the phenomenon. 'Enlargement will offer our young people the possibility to go out and to stay out, but we need for them to come back, which is why I'm talking about infrastructure. You cannot ask young people to come back to stay at old labs with old devices and other old things. Young people want the best conditions, and that's quite understandable. We hope that inside this European Research Area we can manage this in a proper way.'
Encouraging Estonians to stay at home may not be such a difficult task. The country is already doing particularly well in areas such as information technology (IT) - Estonia currently enjoys the highest rate of Internet connectivity per head in the world. 'Estonia has really done a huge job. We use IT in our every day lives,' Professor Ergma told CORDIS News.
She highlights other strengths as biotechnology, gene technology and material science, but is also realistic about her country's capacity to attain top results in all fields. 'Estonia cannot manage to be very good in everything, which is why we now need to produce specialists,' she said.
Sections of the European research community have been aware of Estonia's strengths for a while. The country was represented in some 175 research projects during the Commission's Fifth Framework programme (FP5), and coordinated 23 of these. Initial results from the first FP6 calls for proposals, meanwhile, indicate that Estonia is likely to significantly increase its participation in FP6.
For further information on Estonian research, please visit: