Estonian scientists to protest the populist government’s decision to freeze funding on research

In response to the new government’s decision to reverse on its promise to increase spending on research and development, young Estonian scientists are organising several street protests and a strike.

In late 2018, all the major political parties, par the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), pledged to increase public spend on research and development to at least one per cent of the GDP over three years – after years of underspend on science. The party leaders signed the agreement on 19 December in the presence of the country’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid.

The pledge was also signed by Jüri Ratas – the then and current prime minister and leader of the Centre Party. At the time, he famously said that, “I believe that giving the word and signature guarantees that when the word is given, the word must be kept.”

On 19 December 2018, all the major Estonian political parties, par EKRE, pledged to increase public spend on research and development to at least one per cent of the GDP over three years.

When the new government – formed by the populist Centre Party, the far-right EKRE and the conservative Isamaa – assumed power in April 2019, the coalition partners also agreed to increase the spending on science to at least one per cent of the GDP. However, the government announced this week they will merely maintain the current funding levels, at 0.71 percent of the GDP – effectively backtracking on the earlier promise.

Making matters worse, the government simultaneously announced it intended to lower the excise duty of alcohol. That made many local opinion leaders to pose a rhetorical question – is cheap alcohol more important than research and development that will, in the long term, fuel economic growth for the country?

Street protests

President Kaljulaid did not hide her disappointment and joined with hundreds of scientists and entrepreneurs as well as universities in the criticism of the government’s decision. In a comment given to the Estonian Public Broadcasting, she said that “when scientists lose faith in serving humanity in Estonia, they go elsewhere”.

The populist government’s decision and prime minister Ratas’s broken promise has prompted Estonian science organisations to plan street protests and at least one strike.

The first street protest, organised by the members of the Estonian Science Chamber, is due to take place on 30 May, in front of the Stenbock House, the seat of the Estonian government.

Candles and flowers have already been symbolically laid in front of the Estonian ministry of education and research building in Tartu – to mourn the research-led Estonia. Photo by Mario Kadastik.

“The Estonian government has decided not to raise the funding for research and development to 1% of our GDP. Already, Estonia’s funding for R&D is lower than the average in the European Union and twice less than in Finland. This decision by the government will have far-reaching consequences for every single person living in Estonia,” the organisers said in a statement, inviting everyone to join the “mourning procession of research-led Estonia” at Toompea on 30 May.

Ratas caught bluffing

The scientists organising the protest also pointed out that Ratas had previously given his word but broke it, calling him to resign. “We find the promise that was given on the funding for science and research is seminal. If the prime minister’s signature on such a document does not hold, then that person should not serve as PM. We are unable to trust a government such as this. If prime minister Jüri Ratas and his cabinet don’t honour the pledge, they should resign.”

Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas (Centre Party). Photo courtesy of Stenbock House.

Jüri Ratas told the Estonian Public Broadcasting on 28 May that from 2019-2023, €591 million would be needed to meet the one per cent of GDP spend on science – and that would be impossible. However, the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s science portal Novaator highlighted on 29 May that Ratas was twisting the truth – again. Novaator said that according to the calculation by Maario Kadastik, the president of the Estonian Young Academy of Sciences, the extra funding needed for R&D would be €282 over the next three years.

A “warning strike” by Estonian scientists is also planned, due to take place on 5 June.

Cover: A young Estonian scientist (the image is illustrative). Photo by Erik Riikoja.