Strength in numbers is our source for efficiency and for information-based policy making. Fortunately, there are many who are willing to contribute. The sky may have been gloomy in Brussels on 8 November but the discussions about science for policy at the Permanent Representation of Estonia to the EU, managed to shine a light on the successes, setbacks, and dangers that still lie ahead.
Scientists, policymakers, science communicators, entrepreneurs, diplomats converged at the seminar “Science for Policy – Challenges and Opportunities” organised by the Estonian Research Council. Even though the Estonians were more than 2000km from home, they had no issue with organising an insightful discussion.
The stage was set by the host, Mr. Artur Kink, the Ambassador of Estonia, who underscored the ever-growing need for evidence-based policies. “Whether it be climate, energy, or something else entirely – science is vital. The pace at which decisions are made is increasing and we have to manoeuvre through a dense minefield of misinformation and disinformation,” said the Ambassador. He found that science can be the best sifter to separate the true from false.
The Director of the Estonian Research Council, Anu Noorma added to the Ambassadors opening remarks that coming together, trading information, arguing, and discussing these issues with each other is a crucial part of finding solutions. “We need to find these solutions for our planet, for our civilisation, for mankind. We must act with the long-term perspective in mind, using opportunities and finding solutions – on a very challenging path to the future,” she remarked.
Dr. Lorenzo Melchor, a Policy Analyst from the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission drew on the tumultuous backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. He analysed the frictions that emerged when scientists, policymakers, and public opinion collided. He highlighted how some politicians used science as a shield to deflect responsibility.
He added to this: “There was an uneven level of research and advice in different member states, evidence was sometimes contradictory. This often led to confusion because of varying messages in different member states.” These are lessons to learn from.
Melchor also highlighted three ways to overcome challenges more efficiently:
- Professional network building between different government institutions along with science advisers. The need to bring down administrative silos.
- Intersectoral professional knowledge exchange.
- Increased knowledge on science for policy ecosystems, best practices, capacity, and limits.
“Estonia understands the need for evidence-based policy making and has kickstarted a deliberate process years ago. It is haunted by problems stemming from being a small country, but the recipe is working, it just could be improved,” he concluded.
Prof. Sabina Leonelli, Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Exeter started off by highlighting the issue of hypercompetitive academic publishing which is to the detriment of the quality and usefulness for science for policy. She built on the previous speaker regarding deflecting responsibility – weaponised uncertainty, as she called it. “Open interpretations are easily instrumentalised. This use of scientific advice as a political scapegoat contributes to the loss of trust in science. Science is not a guarantee of truth, it is self-correcting dynamic research,” she explained.
She proposed to advance the understanding that innovation is good for some, not for others. E.g., parasites that destroy the crops in different parts of Europe – different pests, different crops, therefore they call for different innovations, even though they might all stem from climate change.
“Understanding comes through making sense of something in one’s own terms. Things must be communicated to the people in a way that they understand. All of this is very demanding, but necessary,” she said.
Dr. Tiit Lukk, Vice-Rector for Research at the Tallinn University of Technology brought to the centre stage that basic science is paramount for driving research. Fundamental research is the base of everything and being dependant on targeted measures can lead to a serious downfall as some basic competences will simply die out. “Free reign for scientists will produce knowledge that could address crises the politicians cold not have anticipated,” he said reminding once again the COVID-19 pandemic.
He finds that there are too many calls for specific research: to commercialise or to scale up – but perhaps the EU does not have enough industry for this approach? “We have not taught wood chemistry in Estonia since 1996, this is a problem. It is insane that we are trucking out our wood. Scientific spokespersons should communicate this to scientific officers in Estonian ministries,” he said.
He illustrated the problem with another example. Europe has not developed minefield clearing equipment for decades. In Ukraine, the Russian forces have laid mines at places tens of kilometres deep. It would take an estimated 100–700 years to make these places safe again – or to allow a counteroffensive. Due to lack of basic research, there is no hope for alleviating the situation currently. This is a minefield one cannot manoeuvre through.
The policy has changed at the Tallinn University of Technology regarding basic science, but these are just seedlings now. He concluded that the balance between basic and targeted research needs to be revaluated.
Getter Oper, Deputy Head of the Department of Innovation at the Estonian Ministry of Defence continued the topic of defence. He remarked how defence has been a leader of innovation for ages – nowadays the civil sector is at the forefront.
“Estonia is a small country, and our neighbour is not the friendliest, we must take defence seriously. This has a direct impact on research and development expenditures that are increasing in Estonia,” she said and added that due to Estonia’s size, there is great need to prioritise.
“Whatever we do must be based on defence capability needs, it must be information and evidence-based,” she said. Therefore, it is an example how policy makers must have access to such scientific resources. The RITA programme, for example, has resulted in a scientific advisor at the Ministry of Defence to better coordinate RnD and procurements based on scientific information. “They advise and prioritise where the technological advantages and opportunities are,” Oper said.
“Everything we do is to win the next war. It is not always easy to be infallibly precise in science, but for policymaking the Ministry of Defence needs input that is understandable for all parties involved,” she concluded by echoing the words of Prof. Leonelli.
Kalev Koidumäe, CEO at the Estonian Defence and Aerospace Industry Association was the last to take the stage and shed a light on the contrast between peace and war time research and innovation.
The difference goes like this:
Peace: little to no pressure, quality is essential, work-life balance.
War: external pressure, speed is essential, work-life-what – the enemy will not wait you out.
“The emphasis is not only on new ideas but on how to use them on the battlefield. In Ukraine, the innovation has adopted civilian capabilities for supporting combat activity – Starlink, commercial drones, for example. Only during peace time is the military research separated from the end-user,” he said to illustrate how feedback, innovation, and development can become incredibly rapid.
“The war in Ukraine has accelerated the RnD in Estonia, time is of the essence,” he said. Estonian research institutions, defence companies, government institutions must work hard to provide more solutions. The case of Estonia exemplified how external geopolitical events could catalyse innovation, ultimately shaping the trajectory of research and development initiatives.
In conclusion, the collective wisdom shared by the speakers resonates as a compass guiding policymakers, researchers, and enterprises through the labyrinth of challenges that Estonia and the world is increasingly facing. Interinstitutional and interdisciplinary cooperation and understanding is key here. “As a group we can be more capable than AI, if needs be,” as stated by the Director General of the Estonian Research Council. However, time is of the essence and the evidence-based cooperation must find its legs quickly.