COST in Estonia: 25 going on…800?

“We’re not just a closed club, we want to build bridges and foster collaboration – like COST,” says Mart Kalm, referring to the Estonian Academy of Sciences who hosts the conference that celebrates Estonia’s 25 years of membership in COST.

As the contact point for COST in Estonia, The Estonian Research Council (ETAG), understands the importance of COST for researchers, and of broadening the circle of its participants. „It is our duty as a research funding organisation to encourage young researchers and bring them to COST,“ explains Director General Anu Noorma. Coincidentally, ETAG celebrated its 10th anniversary in March and will host a conference in June to discuss the role of research funders, including the importance of international cooperation and the sustainablity issues.

Estonia was the 29th country to join COST in 1997. This year, the network welcomed its 39th and 40th members (Ukraine and Georgia, respectively). It shows that COST has something to offer to everyone, says director Ronald de Bruin. “It’s bottom-up, excellence-driven, open and inclusive. If you have a solid proposal, we’ll help you build a network around it.”

”It’s an opportunity to prove yourself!” says Ülle Must, longtime coordinator of COST in Estonia. She speaks fondly of the participants’ honest feedback and support, sectoral and regional diversity of the seminars. And the members’ unity and ability to mobilize themselves in difficult times.

Tõnu Meidla finds COST one of the most effective instruments in R&I. And Estonia has worked effectively as well. ”We’re one of the smallest participants, but we’ve been involved in 75% of the actions in the past years!” For a small country, openness is particularly important – the fact that a long-running established network still welcomes new members and gives access to a “critical mass” of people. And networks often continue to grow after the formal actions have ended.

COST impact officer Elwin Reinmink concurs that connections are often made for years, so, it’s vital to get the right people together. And inclusiveness is an important part of COST. All countries, not just the selected few, can plan the actions. Researchers from all over Europe and outside big universities can join the network. And ultimately, by working together, we’ll make scientific knowledge work for society. On average, a COST action leads to 6M in spin-off funding – that’s three times the average success rate of the H2020 (37% of spin-offs are successful). One in three actions has an impact on policy-making processes.

Anu Toots (University of Tallinn, TLU) praises COST for its agility and trust. The former applies to both the programme itself (being adaptive and flexible during the pandemic), but also to the participants – when you take in COST, you should be ready for change and ready to change. And COST is very trusting towards researchers who organize events, which significantly reduces the bureaucracy.

Benefits, challenges, and impacts: the panel

Generally, Estonia is doing great in COST, says Maarja Kruusmaa (TalTech), but we could excel better in taking initiative and coordinating actions. As a 4-time COST Action participant, Kruusmaa believes that active participation is much more beneficial than passive one.

Kadri-Liis Lepik (TLU) adds that success is determined by how well you can engage the capable people in the action’s endeavours. “If they believe they can benefit in the long run, they are more effective, so bring out the practical benefits,” Katrin Niglas agrees. Speaking from her experience in TLU, a rather young research university, she says they’ve been working eagerly on broadening their international research networks, acknowledging they can’t make an impact alone. In the future, TLU will put more emphasis on making a societal impact.

How to catch the interest of potential partners outside academy? Interdisciplinarity is good, as it allows researchers from multiple fields to join – and businesses. It is easier to find common language with organisations who value social sensitivity, social enterprises. But perhaps most importantly, your partners should understand what’s in it for them, especially given that COST doesn’t have direct monetary benefits.

Mart Susi’s (TLU) work with COVID passports is a great example of how important networks can be. In just a month, his team managed to study different countries’ attitudes towards the concept, do the research, and present the results to politicians.

He suggests that perhaps, when enterprises want certain benefits from the government, they should be able to demonstrate that they have meaningfully collaborated with research institutions?

Estonian R&D strategy aims to bridge research and business more efficiently and such knowledge transfer is very well supported by the COST actions, says Renno Veinthal (Ministry of Education and Research). “We’d like to see state-owned companies invest more in R&D, but it should be their own interest, too.” There are incentives for cross-sectional mobility (e.g., SekMo) that could encourage enterprises to take the initiative – and open the opportunity for COST to other sectors.

De Bruin agrees: COST’s silver bullet is the attitude – we don’t just want participation, but an active one. Money seems to be an issue in several aspects, though. COST reviewers are paid rather meagerly compared to some other EU programmes (De Bruin agrees it’s something that should be reflected on). And some of the members of the COST Actions’ management committees are rather passive.

A new handbook should soon provide guidelines on how to handle the matter, but it’s important that the members realize how COST is an investment to their (professional) development. Even when participation is voluntary, one should still be active, making the most of their involvement. Universities and other institutions should also acknowledge the benefits that COST offers: expanded networks, visibility, strong leaders with capable teams (who would later also bring in funding). Kruusmaa reminds that universities have three missions – teaching, research and serving the society. And the career model of a researcher always involves a certain amount of voluntary work.

While the panelists agree that COST is generally more valuable for researchers at early career phase, it can also be beneficial for senior participants. „It is a combined value – meet some people you don’t know and find new team members in the progress,“ Susi concludes.

At 25 years, COST in Estonia is like a young adult, „controlling emotions, making plans, and being enthusiastic,“ as summarized by Veinthal. What does the future hold? Ülle Must tells a story of how in 2006, the then-president of COST planted an Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in the University of Tartu botanical gardens. The tree is growing vigorously, proving that “even if you leave the business, it’s important that all the activities go on.” The hemlock can grow for 800 years, so if that’s any indication, the future is looking bright!

The conference “25 years of Estonia’s membership in COST” was held on 16 May in Tallinn,  Estonia. Read more about Estonia’s participation in the network here.