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Generally, Europeans look at Estonia in two ways. On the one hand it is perceived as a modern country with a high level of Internet and cell phone use, wi-fi networks covering whole rural villages, and paperless e-government.

On the other hand, the Soviet past and long years behind the "iron curtain" have left their marks and have made Estonian science not very well known in Europe. The Estonian Network of Mobility Centres and Researchers Mobility Portal aim to help the country open the doors to its research landscape. This article gives you a heads-up on what these organizations are up to.

Research and development in Estonia is concentrated around public universities. The largest and oldest is the University of Tartu (founded in 1632), which, along with the Estonian Agricultural University, is situated in Tartu. This is a university town of 100,000 in the southern part of Estonia. Tallinn--the capital of Estonia--also hosts two large universities: Tallinn University of Technology and Tallinn Pedagogical University.

However, research in Estonia is not performed only at universities. Several public research institutes contribute to the scientific productivity of Estonia. Good examples are the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu, the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in Tallinn, and the Estonian Institute for Sustainable Development.

Box 1: Facts and Figures About Estonia

Area: 45,227 sq km (a bit larger than the Netherlands)

Population: 1,356,000 (1/12 that of the Netherlands)

Number of public universities: 6

Number of public research institutions: 12

A growing number of spinoff companies, in areas such as biotechnology

Funding

Fundamental research funding comes mainly from the Ministry of Education and Research and is distributed through the Estonian Science Foundation and the Scientific Competence Council. Applied research is funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications through Enterprise Estonia, an organisation dedicated to stimulating entrepreneurship. Enterprise Estonia, for example, runs programmes for setting up spinoff companies.

In Estonia, industry often collaborates with academia by outsourcing their research; most Estonian companies are too small to run a research department of their own. In terms of R&D expenditure Estonia hasn't met the Lisbon objective (3% of GDP by the year 2010) yet, but the government has big plans. According to the strategy document for 2002-06--"Knowledge-based Estonia"--the target is to reach half the Lisbon objective by 2006. For a further increase in R&D investment, the support of industry is essential, because the level of public funding is already similar to that in many western European countries.

Few Ph.D. students in Estonia work full-time on their doctoral research. They get a monthly stipend from the state budget, but this is generally not enough to live on. In addition, graduate students get a yearly grant to cover travel expenses and other additional costs. But they often supplement their income with part-time employment contracts at universities, in exchange for fulfilling extra duties such as teaching undergraduates. Two-thirds of the Ph.D. students are also included in one of the research grants of the Estonian Science Foundation and thus receive an additional contribution to their stipend.

Because Estonian students often split their time between research and other work, the number of doctoral students who get their degree in the nominal time of 4 years is rather low. The Ministry of Education and Research has recently initiated some legislative changes that should make life easier for Ph.D. students, giving them a chance to work full-time on their doctoral studies and reducing the number of dropouts.

Mobility

Estonia is no different from other European countries in facing a need to increase the research potential considerably in the coming years. Estimates predict that if Estonia wants to grow into an innovative country, it needs about 1000 additional researchers, so attracting young scientists from abroad is essential. The prevailing type of mobility has been from Estonia to other countries; mostly in a go-and-return format--as in the case of the Marie Curie Fellow Anu Reinart, who recently shared her experiences with Science's Next Wave. Although this type of mobility results in good contacts with research groups abroad, knowledge transfer to the home institute, and experience with differences in research culture, the ideal situation would entail more of a balance between outgoing and incoming scientists. And indeed, the flow of foreign researchers coming to Estonia has increased in recent years.

Few foreign graduate students are enrolled in Estonian universities, although there are no legislative obstacles: Doctoral studies are open to candidates from all nationalities, and the law doesn't state a preference for local candidates. Potential foreign Ph.D. students benefit from recent changes in entry conditions and visa legislation. For example, earlier non-European researchers were only allowed to bring their families if they had an employment contract. Nowadays, third-country Ph.D. students can have their families with them for the duration of their studies.

Box 2: Quote by Erwan Pennarun (26), Ph.D. student from France at the University of Tartu:

"I came to Estonia because of the great opportunity to be part of one of the leading labs in the world in the field of population genetics. I believe that the time spent here will be most rewarding for my research career; plus the working facilities are really good. Moreover, I truly like this country!"

Right Time, Right Place

In light of the lack of (young) scientists coming to Estonia, two recent initiatives of the European Commission--the European Network of Mobility Centres (ERA-MORE) and the Researcher's Mobility Portal--have come at the right time for Estonia. They coincide perfectly with the country joining the E.U. and allow Estonia to open its gates to the rest of Europe.

As described in an earlier article, European countries are setting up their national networks of mobility centres as part of ERA-MORE. The Estonian network has two levels. First, the Ministry of Education and Research appointed two bridgehead organisations--the Archimedes Foundation and the Estonian Academy of Sciences--to work mostly at the national level and coordinate the activities of the network. All members of the network have signed the Declaration of Commitment (see box 3). With their signatures they've agreed to provide information and assistance to all mobile researchers and their families. They are thus committed to answer all questions concerning mobility, whether these concern entry conditions, finding the right research group, or family issues such as day-care centres and job opportunities for spouses.

Box 3: Quote from the Declaration of Commitment:

"All the signatories to this Declaration take the commitment to respect the operational mission of the European network of mobility centres, namely to provide comprehensive and up-to-date information and personalised assistance to all researchers seeking advice and their families in all matters relating to their mobility experiences.

[...] The general mission of the Network includes information and assistance in matters such as entry conditions, visas, work permits, recognition of diplomas, job opportunities, salaries, taxation, pension rights, health care, social security, accommodation, day care, schooling, language courses, access to the culture of the host country."

One of the most important tasks of the Archimedes Foundation is to set up the Estonian Mobility Portal. Although most other European countries have designed their national portals after the pan-European Researcher's Mobility Portal (RMP), Estonia has taken a different model. The Estonian Portal looks different from the European Portal and combines information for mobile researchers and students. It consists of five parts:

  • About Estonia, with general information on Estonia;

  • Student Mobility, which contains information about the education system and how to study in Estonia;

  • Practical Training, with information on national and local training programmes;

  • Researcher Mobility, with practical information on grants and vacancies for foreign researchers coming to Estonia;

  • Higher Education and Research Institutions, which gives an overview of the Estonian higher education and research landscape.

  • The portal is still in its pilot phase, but most of the relevant information is already available online. When it is finished, the portal will provide information and links to other information sources, like ministries, state boards and agencies, universities, and research institutes.

    On a more local level, the University of Tartu, Tallinn Technical University, and Tallinn Pedagogical University have incorporated local mobility centres. The local mobility centres assist mainly researchers who come to work in the respective university.

    Together, the Estonian Network of Mobility Centres and the Estonian Mobility Portal provide clear information and directed advice to researchers interested in Estonia. If you can't find the necessary information in the Mobility Portal, you can always contact the mobility centres directly; they might be able to help you further. They also help universities and research institutes to show vacancies and funding opportunities to the rest of the world.

    As the Estonian staff works hard to set up the country's mobility portal, they are directing researchers and research institutes to the pan-European portal, in which job vacancies can be searched and posted in a European database. Compared to the current situation--where universities and research institutes routinely post their vacancies in Estonian newspapers and on their own Web pages-- the RMP gives more possibilities to target audiences abroad. The Estonian bridgeheads try to stimulate vacancy postings in English and the use of the RMP database to get maximum visibility for the job ads.

    In Estonian science, you might find contrasts between old and new similar to those found in the streets of Tallinn. However, with unique initiatives such as the Genome Project, Estonian research is sometimes on the forefront of today's science. The Mobility Portals and the Estonian Mobility Centres can help you make contacts with Estonian science.