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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 46 - August 2005    
 Facts, figures and future prospects
 Five-yearly assessment: interview with Erkki Ormala
 The boundaries of surveillance
 Biometrics and justice
 School and equality
 A week with the stars

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Title  New beginnings for research

EU membership was a particularly notable event in the history of the three Baltic republics. As members of the former USSR, the advanced economies of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia had been directed firmly eastwards. Their highly developed scientific life was organised on the Soviet model around two central pillars: the academies of science and military research. It was this entire system that had to be dismantled before a new one could be erected. Not surprisingly, the process was far from painless.

Lithuania (Vilnius shown here) is not Latvia. And Latvia is not Estonia. The Baltic countries each have their own identity – one they are proud of and determined to defend. But they also have shared and often painful history marked by alternating periods of independence and dominance by foreign powers. This common destiny is apparent in all fields – cultural, economic and scientific.
Lithuania (Vilnius shown here) is not Latvia. And Latvia is not Estonia. The Baltic countries each have their own identity – one they are proud of and determined to defend. But they also have shared and often painful history marked by alternating periods of independence and dominance by foreign powers. This common destiny is apparent in all fields – cultural, economic and scientific.
These three republics are three every different countries – and are determined to remain so. Lithuanian and Latvian belong to the family of Baltic languages, for example, while Estonian – with just 900 000 speakers – is a Finno-Ugrian language. Lithuania is predominantly Catholic while Estonia and Latvia are Lutheran, save for the 30% Russian inhabitants who are often Orthodox. Yet despite their strongly individual identities, these three countries share a tumultuous and dramatic past that tells us a great deal about their present situation.

Renowned seats of learning
The Baltic countries were very much involved in the blossoming of modern science in the age of classicism. The first university was founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1579, which was under Polish domination at the time. This was followed in 1632 by the University of Tartu in Estonia, which was under Swedish rule. These two universities soon became renowned seats of learning and were instrumental in introducing new ideas to tsarist Russia that conquered the three republics in the 18th century. Russia closed Vilnius University in 1832 for political reasons, but 30 years later founded the Riga Polytechnical Institute. Two future Nobel prizewinners worked there, the chemists Wilhem Ostwald and Svante Arrhenius, while many future doctors and biologists of the tsarist empire trained at Tartu.

When they first gained independence, in 1918, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania therefore had a solid scientific tradition on which they could build. It was between the wars that today’s principal scientific institutions were founded: the University of Latvia, in Riga, in 1919; Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1922 (replacing Vilnius University, the city being occupied by the Poles at the time); and Tallin Technical University (Estonia) in 1936. Scientific life was to concentrate on what the Baltic people call national science: ethnology, linguistics, history, and study of the natural environment. Although the study of biology and medicine was at a high level, the experimental sciences – which were the glory of the Baltic countries at the time of the tsars – were somewhat neglected. 

The ‘mark’ of the USSR
Independence was to be short-lived, however. Annexed by the USSR in 1940, the Baltic countries were occupied by Nazi Germany until 1944, years during which they paid a heavy toll in human lives. However, their return to the embrace of the USSR did not bring an end to their suffering. Tens of thousands of people were assassinated or deported to Siberia, including many members of the scientific intelligentsia. Stalin reorganised the research system along the lines of the Russian model and founded academies of science in each of the republics that were charged with overseeing directly virtually all the laboratories. Universities lost their research role and had to concentrate exclusively on teaching, with the social sciences placed under the strictest ideological control. ‘Branch institutes’ were later set up by the various ministries and charged with applied research.  

Despite these constraints, the system permitted a new phase of scientific development in the Baltic countries where the USSR chose to concentrate much of its research and high technology in fields such as lasers, materials physics, pharmacology (Latvian institutes supplied a quarter of new medicines in the USSR), biotechnologies (creation of the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu in 1986), and semiconductors (in Lithuania). Unlike their colleagues in Moscow or St Petersburg, let alone those in the ‘secret’ towns in Siberia, in the 1970s Baltic scientists began to publish papers in international journals and were even allowed a degree of freedom to travel. 

Was it is this relative freedom that helped make scientists the driving force behind the nationalist and democratic movement that grew in strength from the late 1980s? Making the most of the perestroika, ‘scientists’ unions’ were founded in Latvia in November 1988 and in the other two republics the following year. These associations demanded greater democracy for the research system; and were granted it. In 1990 – thus before independence – research councils were set up, membership of which was solely on the basis of scientific criteria. These councils began to structure science around a principle unknown in the Soviet era: evaluation of the quality of a project by the peer group. This ‘self-management’ free of government interference lasted until 1992.

Lessons of the Nordic audits
An important initiative of the research councils that was to help anchor the Baltic republics in Europe was the request for an external audit. In 1991, Estonia requested the opinion of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. The following year, Latvia made a similar application to the Danish Research Council followed, in 1995, by Lithuania’s request to be evaluated by the Norwegian Research Council. These audits by Scandinavian experts, with financial assistance from the EU, were to play a major role in restructuring the Baltic research systems. Their principal recommendations – closer links between research and higher education, growth in student numbers, simplification of structures, evaluation on the basis of quality only – were to be applied to the letter in Estonia and Latvia, and to a lesser degree, in Lithuania. The result was that the academies of science lost their immense powers, becoming somewhat like the learned societies found in the United Kingdom that are major contributors to the public debate. The institutes they managed were either closed, if they had outlived their usefulness, or otherwise transferred to the universities or the state. On the financial front, agencies were set up to be responsible for evaluating projects on the basis of quality alone. Steps were also taken to expand higher education.

What results did these reforms achieve, given that they were implemented in a climate of economic crisis that produced cuts in the public funding of research? That was the question posed by the European Commission in 1997 in the context of the pre-accession negotiations. The experts found that they had served to relaunch fundamental research on solid bases. The centres of excellence policy under the Fifth Framework Programme subsequently generated financing that proved very useful for the modernisation and international renown of the best laboratories. On the other hand, the organisation of applied research and the industrial exploitation of the results of fundamental research remained insufficient. Also, while the number of publications had increased, the registration of patents was declining.  

A triple transition
In no other former Soviet bloc countries has the transition over the past 15 years been as radical and profound or effected against a backdrop of such tumultuous events as in the Baltic republics. Latvian chemist Janis Stradins, an expert in the history of sciences, explains that “the research and higher education system has developed in a quite similar way in the three Baltic countries, both historically and institutionally. They have all experienced a succession of three transitional periods between scientific life integrated in that of a large country and autonomous science in a small independent country: first, from the tsarist empire to independence during the period between the wars, subsequently from this independence to the Soviet empire, and then back again to independence.” The current period is of course distinctive thanks to the integration of these countries into the European Union. They have managed to retain the basics, that is their high-level institutes of fundamental research, and the need now is to define the way in which they are going to be able to join the European Research Area.

National strategies have been drawn up that adopt most of the Lisbon summit’s recommendations, with the emphasis on biotechnologies and the information and communication technologies. But much remains to be done, especially to stimulate private investment in research that far from exceeds 30% (compared with the 55% average for the EU-25). As a recent book on developments in Baltic research systems over the past 15 years – co-authored by three experts, the Estonian Helle Martinson, the Latvian Janis Kristapsons and the Lithuanian Ina Dagyte(1) – concludes: "decision-makers in the Baltic republics must now tackle two crucial issues: the need to achieve a considerable increase in investments in R&D to reach 3% of GDP and to take steps to encourage the most able young scientists to remain in their country. These are the essential issues, not just for science but for the very future of their countries.” 

(1) J. Kristapsons, H. Martinson et I. Dagyte, Baltic R and D systems in transition, Zinatne, Riga, 2003 – Also recommended reading: J. Allik, The quality of science in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after the first decade of independence, Trames (2003) 7 : 41-52.

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