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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 46 - August 2005    
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LATVIA
Title  Rooting growth in innovation

The rate of growth in the Baltic republics is among the highest in the European Union. Averaging 5.8% over the 1995-2003 period, Latvia ranks an impressive second, just behind Ireland. But that does not mean the battle has been won. Rooting growth in innovation remains a challenge for the future.

In 1999, Aigars Ekers became the first Latvian to receive a Marie Curie European fellowship to undertake research at the University of Kaiserslautern (DE). He returned home in 2005, to Riga University’s Institute of Nuclear Physics and Spectroscopy where – at the new Laser Spectroscopy Centre – he set up a high-tech molecular beam laboratory, funded by his German host institution.
In 1999, Aigars Ekers became the first Latvian to receive a Marie Curie European fellowship to undertake research at the University of Kaiserslautern (DE). He returned home in 2005, to Riga University’s Institute of Nuclear Physics and Spectroscopy where – at the new Laser Spectroscopy Centre – he set up a high-tech molecular beam laboratory, funded by his German host institution.
After the stagnation of the 1990s, linked to economic conversion and made worse by the 1999 Russian financial crisis, recent years have seen the Latvian economy take off in a big way. But the driving force behind it remains the growth of trade on new markets rather than production and the exploitation of new knowledge. So how can growth be rooted in innovation? That was the key question asked at the Baltic Dynamics conference held in Riga in September 2004 and attended by 450 participants.

Where there’s a will
Janos Stabulnieks, director of the Latvian Centre of Technology and the conference president, believes that, “adopting a national innovation strategy is one thing, changing systems and mentalities is something else again – and much more complicated …”. Janos and virtually all the conference participants agree that Latvia is suffering from a lack of investment in research (the lowest level for any EU country), insufficient students in higher education studying science or technology, and a lack of resources in valuations and finance. This objective but severe diagnosis nevertheless implies a potential for improvement – but only if there is the will. “Our only option is to base the economy on knowledge,” he explains, hoping to convince others of the vital need to support Latvian innovation – particularly in the 60 high-tech companies with their origins in the country’s research laboratories. 

Physics, oceanography, biomedicine…
Riga University’s Centre for Biomedical Research: “Our only option is to base our economy on knowledge.”
Riga University’s Centre for Biomedical Research: “Our only option is to base our economy on knowledge.”
One example of innovation is to be found in the country’s principal higher education establishment, the University of Latvia, the successor to the Riga Polytechnic Institute that was founded back in 1862. This has become a major research centre since it took over the management of the 23 institutes formerly run by the Academy of Sciences in the Soviet era. Its strengths are primarily in the physical sciences. Three laboratories have been recognised as European centres of excellence: the Institute of Solid State Physics, the Institute of Physics, and the Institute of Nuclear Physics and Spectroscopy. The latter, which is also the Latvian contact point for the Sixth Framework Programme, is a member of the Accent (Atmospheric Composition Change: a European network) network of excellence, to which it contributes its expertise in the field of spectroscopy for the analysis of atmospheric pollutants. “Our institute is the resource centre for all the state authorities involved in applying European air-quality standards,” points out its director, Arnold Ubelis.

For a major port town such as Riga, it is not surprising to find that its researchers have also turned their attention to oceanography. During the past decade, university researchers have participated in European programmes on describing the Baltic diatoms and the biotechnological applications of micro-algae as well as investigating the causes of the silting up of ports. 

Biomedicine is another prominent research area and the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine has participated – partly thanks to Unesco funding – in European research projects on gene therapy for chronic hepatitis and on vaccines against the hantavirus, projects in which the Vilnius Institute of Biotechnology (Lithuania) was also involved. For its part, the Institute of Organic Synthesis has carried out research in partnership with pharmaceutical companies from throughout the EU as well as the United States.

Finally, this major timber exporter has contributed to innovative research on modifying the structure of its wood by injecting non-polluting plastic materials with the aim of improving the mechanical properties so that they can rival those of tropical woods. The University of Latvia laboratories participated in a total of 16 research programmes financed by the Fifth Framework Programme.

    
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