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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 49 - May 2006    
 Security: research under starter’s orders
 ITER settles in Cadarache
 Mapping the contours of humanity
 On the trail of the human phenomenon
 The enigma of the blue algae
 The virtual encyclopaedia of fish

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Title  Ene Ergma: the political physicist

Originating from the outer limits of the European Union and one of its smallest Member States has never stopped Ene Ergma from saying what she thinks about the big issues of European science. Trained in her speciality by the cream of Soviet physicists, this energetic and determined woman has climbed the rungs of democratic power with her ability to learn and desire to communicate intact.

Ene Ergma
“Why did I go into politics? To defend science.” This paradoxical answer holds the key to the impressive route travelled by Ene Ergma, a physicist specialising in the evolution of the stellar system and President of the Estonian Parliament, the Rikogu. Her mission is the accession of the new Member States to the knowledge society. “In a small country like Estonia, with just 1.3 million inhabitants, if you want to develop and create wealth you have to educate young generations and offer them a good system of education, especially science education. Life in the 21st century is already so closely linked to science and will become more so. That is why you need scientists in parliament.”

Although she holds one of the most senior positions of state responsibility, Ene Ergma is not afraid to speak her mind. “Education is a long-term project, whereas many politicians are concerned mainly with managing four-year cycles. They also know how to count their voters. In Estonia, there are 3 000 scientists who vote and 300 000 pensioners! So you have to be committed. From the outside, you can simply provide an expert opinion. From the inside, it is more difficult and you must reach a consensus… but that does not mean you cannot get things done.” 

Moscow and the hand of God
Resilience and energy are the driving forces that have enabled Ene Ergma to meet the challenges she has faced in her long and varied career. Fanatical about sport, especially tennis and cross-country skiing, as a schoolgirl back in 1960, she paid little attention to the poor school reports she had to bring home to her parents. “Until one day I heard somebody speak about someone in Moscow who was studying plasma physics. Although to this day I do not truly understand why, that fascinated me. I said: me too. I bought a book on the subject and started to work.”

Her marks soon improved, but places for Estonians at Moscow universities were few and far between at the time. Coming from a small village and with little awareness of the intrigues of the cities, it was another candidate – son of the first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party – who won the scholarship to Moscow. Resilient as ever, she got into Estonia’s Tartu University where she studied for two years before finally getting her ticket to Moscow.   

This committed agnostic smiles as she declares that “it must surely have been the hand of God that showed me the path. When I arrived in Moscow in 1964, the Soviet scientific system had reached a very high level. The authorities took the natural sciences, especially physics, very seriously indeed, and we were not lacking in research resources.”

Ene Ergma threw herself into her studies which brought her into contact with some of the greatest Russian physicists of the time, such as Zeldovich, Guinzbourg, Sklovsky. She looks back on the period with mixed feelings: “Science needs changes and openness and the system did not permit this. But the policy of grouping together all young talents at a handful of centres of excellence created a very stimulating environment and intense competition. I often say that our generation hit the jackpot, because we experienced the years when we came to understand so many things about the functioning of the Universe.”

Return to independence
But 24 years after she arrived in the USSR and one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ene Ergma left Moscow’s Space Research Institute and returned to Estonia to become a professor at Tartu University. Was this a reawakening of a national consciousness amid the atmosphere of perestroika? Or perhaps she wanted to teach again and felt it was now or never? No doubt it was a little of both, plus the fact that she had grown tired of the way the Soviet authorities were always trying to make life difficult for her. “For the last nine years of my career, I was not allowed to leave the country. I was being punished.” It seems her readiness to speak out was not exactly winning her friends among the powers that be. During all these years, she also obstinately refused to join the Communist Party.  

Her homecoming was not easy. Three years later, on 20 August 1991, Estonia became independent. “That was a very difficult time for research,” she recalls. “We were a very small country without resources and had to train civil servants, bankers and businessmen. Physics attracted very few students and often the less able. That doesn’t matter, some people told me, we will start with a clean state. But I knew that it is not easy to start up again when everything has been destroyed. In the end, we managed to salvage the essentials. Students are now returning and we have the resources to welcome them.” 

The Academy and Parliament
Six years later, this energetic physicist entered the Estonian Academy of Sciences, and in 1999 she became the first woman to be appointed its Vice-President. But that did not satisfy her thirst for action and she decided to enter politics. Clearly impressing the voters with her determination and straightforward approach, her first victory at the ballot box came in the local elections of 2002. One year later, she entered the Estonian Parliament, representing the centre-right Res Publica. From that point, events moved quickly and Ene Ergma found herself President of the Estonian Parliament just one year before the country joined the EU. Preparations for accession were, therefore, a responsibility that fell on her shoulders: “It was hectic work. I had to familiarise myself with so many dossiers and for me it was all new.” But it proved to be yet another challenge that was crowned with success. 

Sometimes the frantic rhythm of political life weighs heavily on this woman who has never lost her fascination with the stars. “Of course, in the world of science there are also moments of intense activity. But that cannot be compared with the public stage. Before, I would be in my study wondering why two stars revolve around another in such a strange way. You develop hypotheses and it is all very calm, whereas now I have to fight and struggle every inch of the way. You have to be so determined to achieve even the most basic things.” 

Women, young people and ethics
Has politics changed her? “I have perhaps become less optimistic,” she smiles. “You know, nature is unique, the laws of physics are unique, but people are multiple. The laws of society are much more complicated than the laws of nature!” But that does not mean that Ene Ergma is resigned to the imperfections of society. When contacted by the European Commission to participate in a study group looking at the situation of women researchers in the former Communist countries, she first declined the invitation.

“At first, I thought it was a pseudo problem. I had enjoyed a wonderful career without too many problems. But then I read the reports of my colleagues and the figures said it all. While most PhDs are women, more than 85% of professors are men!” She agreed to head the Enwise (Enlarge Women in Science to East) group of experts that reported in 2004. Today she has no hesitation in declaring that there has been little change. “It is time to stop speaking about this problem and to start to resolve it,” she insists. How? By finding the means to support women scientists with children, for example. But not by creating posts that are reserved for women. “I have already been offered, in the course of my career, such posts ‘reserved for women or for ethnic minorities’. I always regarded this as a humiliation.”

There are few fields that escape the attention of this woman whose energy seems to increase with the passing years. On the youth front, Ene Ergma is President of the jury that awards the Descartes Prize. Although it involves a lot of work, it is not a task she is ready to give up: “It brings me into contact with so many brilliant and enthusiastic young people, and gives me the opportunity to travel and keep up to date on what is happening.” Ethics is another of her fields of interest – and of action. She is a member the Sciences and Ethics Committee of the European Federation of National Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA). In this capacity, she is a committed campaigner for a transparent science that is open to society and an opponent of a cloistered culture of infallible experts of which she was for so long a part.  

In all of this, she has some moments of nostalgia for research. “Fortunately, I have just been invited by an Italian university to give a series of lectures on my scientific specialities: the evolution and physics of stars, the combustion of unstable cores and the evolution of exotic binary systems with neutron stars and black holes. Of course, this is going to involve some work. I will have to find out about everything that has been happening over recent years.” But it seems that work ceases to be a problem when the subject that fascinates is fascinating.