Estonian science

University of Tartu professor to develop an AI for improving business processes

Marlon Dumas, a professor of information systems at the University of Tartu, has received a prestigious grant worth over €2 million to develop an artificial intelligence-based tool called “Pix” to enable companies to improve their business processes automatically.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia. By Randel Kreitsberg, University of Tartu.

Business processes are the backbone of modern organisations. A properly compiled portfolio of business processes gives a competitive edge and helps organisations be better prepared for innovation. A typical example of a business process is the “order-to-cash” process. This is the process that starts when a company receives a purchase order from a customer and ends when the products or services ordered by the customer have been delivered and the customer has paid.

For contemporary organisations, the speed and efficiency of such processes is vital. Managers and analysts work daily towards making business processes run smoothly. To streamline current processes – instead of creating new ones – we need to process large amounts of data, often only on the basis of the intuition and experience of the analyst.

Artificial intelligence helps

Marlon Dumas, who’s among the 1% of most cited researchers in the field of computer sciences in the world, works on managing business processes with the help of artificial intelligence.

“In this project, we will develop methods to analyse data extracted from enterprise systems in order to automatically discover opportunities for improving the quality and efficiency of business processes. These methods will combine machine learning and optimisation techniques to ensure that all possible improvement opportunities are considered, and that the optimal combination of improvement opportunities is selected,” Dumas said. “The research will result in an open-source tool, called Pix, which will enable its users to automatically generate ideas for improving their business processes.”

Dumas gave an example from an “order-to-cash” process.

“Let’s say we notice that almost every time we send a purchase order to our supplier in Brazil without adding the transport route, the order is late. However, when communicating with the Spanish supplier, the fastest solution is to let the local contact choose their own transport route,” he explained. “The AI-based Pix tool will recognise this difference by analysing the prior history of purchases and deliveries, and will design the business process in such a way that a transport route will always be added to the order for the Brazilian partner but not for the Spanish one.”

A major advance

The main challenge in developing the above-mentioned solutions is the large amount of various parallel possibilities and solutions. The regular “order-to-cash” process in larger companies contains tens of intermediate stages, which all have their own decisions and resulting activities. When we add hundreds of different manufacturers, suppliers and clients into the mix, we get millions of ways to make our processes more efficient.

Pix will be a major advance with respect to existing tools for data-driven process improvement, such as Apromore, created by researchers from the University of Tartu in collaboration with researchers from the University of Melbourne.

Unlike Apromore, Pix will not just help analysts to identify bottlenecks and sources of defects, but it will also help them to come up with new improvement opportunities. Pix is able to analyse almost all potential possibilities to optimise costs, time, system faults and combinations thereof. However, the final choice on how to act is left to the company’s analyst.

The European Research Council encourages researchers to take risks

The European Research Council (ERC) awarded the research project “The Process Improvement Explorer: Automated Discovery and Assessment of Business Process Improvement Opportunities (PIX)” an ERC Advanced Grant worth over €2.3 million for a period of five years. The European Research Council awarded in total €540 million to 222 researchers for boosting cutting-edge research. Only 11% per cent received funding out of more than 2,000 research proposals submitted.

The funded research projects create more than 2,000 jobs, and new daring solutions are hoped for many of the problems ailing modern Europe: from social crises to generating renewable energy. For example, Swiss social scientists will use crowd-sourced data to study the liveability of large cities. Hungarian scientists, on the other hand, are focusing on studying the rights of Eastern European working-class women.

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Cover: Marlon Dumas, professor of information systems at the University of Tartu, is among the 1% of most cited scientists in the field of computer sciences in the world (photo courtesy of UT).

Estonian and American universities to collaborate on developing self-driving cars

Tallinn University of Technology has signed a co-operation agreement with Florida Polytechnic University to join forces for future development and increasing the security of automated vehicles.

TalTech started developing Estonia’s first automated vehicle from scratch in 2017 and in the summer of 2018, presented the first prototype. The university announced on 10 April that it had signed a cooperation agreement with Florida Polytechnic University Advanced Mobility Institute to take the development onto next level and integrate automated vehicles to real traffic situations in a safe way.

“Self-driving cars and other autonomous systems are one of the most paradigm-changing technological developments in today’s world. Transportation is affecting every single person and has a large impact on economic development. There will be huge challenges to solve and international cooperation is crucial here,” the university said in a statement.

Safety is the key issue

According to TalTech, Florida Polytechnic University is a leading institute focused on the test and verification of autonomous vehicles in the US. Florida Polytechnic University Advanced Mobility Institute “has developed unique verification and scenario simulation tools to analyse and find edge situations in respect of safety and accident analysis. They are working towards a concept which will change the whole paradigm how transportation is handled and coordinated on cloud-based solutions,” the university said.

The research collaboration will use Florida Polytechnic University’s capability in testing to improve the robustness of TalTech’s automated vehicle in realistic environments. “Safety is the key issue in the deployment of self-driving cars. The validation methodology and simulations of scenarios give us significant added value and enable the development of safer technical solutions for self-driving cars,” Raivo Sell, the manager of the self-driving car project and scientist at TalTech, said in a statement.

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Cover: TalTech’s AV tested in front of the university’s main building in Tallinn.

Estonian scientists are in a process of creating a remote air traffic tower centre that will enable a central and flexible provision of air traffic services, including the option that one person can provide service simultaneously to more than one aerodrome at the same time.

Estonian aviation scientists develop a remote tower centre to centralise air traffic services

Estonian aviation scientists are in the process of developing a remote tower centre to centralise air traffic services in the country.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia.

The objective of air traffic control is to prevent collisions between aircraft in the air, on the manoeuvring area of an aerodrome and to expedite and maintain an orderly flow of traffic at the same time.

There are different air traffic control units to reach the objective, and to assure a safe service during an entire flight from departure until landing at a destination aerodrome. One of the units is an aerodrome control tower having its area of responsibility in the vicinity of an aerodrome and on ground including runways and taxiways. A specific feature of this unit is that the controlling of traffic is based on a direct visual contact.

Today, there are two aerodrome control towers in Estonia operated by Estonian Air Navigation Services – in Tallinn and in Tartu. At regional aerodromes in Kuressaare, Kärdla and Pärnu, an aerodrome flight information service is provided instead of aerodrome control. There are differences in responsibility, but one of the cornerstones for providing services is the same – direct visual contact with traffic and area of responsibility.

Estonia has set the goal that the provision of air traffic services at all aerodromes in Estonia should be the responsibility of Estonian Air Navigation Services, and to reach this objective, one functional prerequisite is the availability of remote tower facilities. “This allows us to create a remote tower centre that will enable a central and flexible provision of air traffic services, including the option that one person can provide service simultaneously to more than one aerodrome at the same time,” Tanel Kulbas, the development specialist at the Estonian Aviation Academy, said.

Karl-Erik Seegel, the vice rector at the Estonian Aviation Academy, added that this centre could help prevent the lack of air traffic controllers and, at the same time, it would give enough work to all controllers. In this field, Norway and Sweden are good role models, he said, as there are small airports controlled via remote tower.

Not a direct visual contact anymore

“In the case of the remote tower, the services are provided remotely and visual presentation of the area of responsibility is received via cameras located at the aerodromes, transferred via fibre optic cables and presented on a panoramic screen at a working position called a remote tower module,” Teele Kohv, a specialist in the development department at Estonian Air Navigation Services, noted.

She added that the visual reproduction can be overlaid with information from additional sources like surveillance equipment and infrared cameras, so the visual reproduction will be enhanced with the help of different technical solutions to support situational awareness in case of different light and visibility conditions. The technology shall be designed in a way that there will be no need for major changes in operational working methods of air traffic services personnel.

The first step in the development of remote tower technology is the design and building of a remote tower prototype for Tartu aerodrome by “shadowing” the whole conventional tower equipment, except the out-of-the-window view that is now replaced with visual reproduction. The remote tower prototype module is located on the ground floor of the Tartu airport building.

The main co-operation partner concerning the development of video presentation and other technical issues is Cybernetica AS, an Estonian company that has extensive experience in developing surveillance solutions for vessel traffic services and video monitoring for port operations.

Validation, testing and trial programme

Kulbas noted that the first of the two main tasks for the Estonian Aviation Academy is the support during the validation of remote tower system related to human factors and the acceptance of the new working position of the remote tower module. The second task is the testing of multiple remote tower operations to find out the solutions and possible limitations in case one person is providing air traffic services to Tartu and Kuressaare aerodromes at the same time.

“Based on the knowledge and experience received from the aerodrome control tower simulator, the suggestions for the changes in working arrangements and procedures will be issued,” he said.

For the aviation academy, the work started in 2017 with a background study of all four regional airports. This study contains recommendations for the possible transition and for operational and technical changes considered essential by air traffic services personnel. During the same year, the preparations started for passive shadow mode operations.

The shadow mode trial programme was prepared together with the assessment methodology and tools. The objective of a passive shadow mode trial was to familiarise with the remote tower working position, its technical functions and to assess the quality of these functions and visual information, to find out all possible deficiencies for improving the remote tower working position to the stage that it allows to start with an active shadow mode trial, Kulbas explained.

The passive trial was carried out during January and February 2018. The conclusions of the passive trial showed that the remote tower system was at the stage that continuation with active shadow mode operations was possible. An active shadow mode operation started in October 2018.

Ready for all scenarios

The aim of the active shadow mode trial is to provide an air traffic control service from a remote tower working position with monitoring from a conventional tower to all listed traffic during all listed circumstances, and to find out all possible deficiencies and differences from conventional tower operations to enhance operational procedures and to make technical improvements to the extent that allows the Estonian Civil Aviation Administration to certify the remote tower system and the provision of air traffic services from a remote tower working position. For evaluating the process and results of the active shadow mode trial, the methodology was improved considering the experience from passive shadow mode trials, as well as the character of the active trials.

The detailed preparation of simulations started in November 2018. The main task was to prepare the working position for the simulations, to create realistic and comprehensive scenarios for simulations and to prepare assessment methodology and tools.

Seegel said some questions needed to be answered during the development: What if the cameras are full of snow? What if two planes want to land at the same time to different controlled airports? What if the connection is disturbed?

“The simulation part of the work is relatively unique and critical for future decisions. In Europe, similar simulations have been carried out, but there is always a significant difference as aerodromes, their procedures and traffic are different as well as the working methods and experience of personnel involved. This practical research should give a realistic basis on which the conditions and procedures for working in a multi aerodrome environment shall be developed in Estonia,” Kulbas said. Kohv added that the results of the research shall also provide the basis for local approval of multi aerodrome operations when providing air traffic services.

The development process has been successful so far but there are still a lot of challenges ahead, Kulbas asserted. He explained that the main benefits of a remote tower system and centre in the case of their thorough and successful development will be provision of cost efficient air traffic services, optimising the use of personnel and infrastructure resources, improving flight safety by using new technology and increasing flexibility when providing air traffic services at regional aerodromes. Also, unexpected events can be handled in a more efficient and reliable manner, if all the questions are answered, and all scenarios are provided with exact plans.

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Cover: Estonian scientists are in a process of creating a remote air traffic tower centre that will enable a central and flexible provision of air traffic services, including the option that one person can provide service simultaneously to more than one aerodrome at the same time.

The black storks in Estonia are suffering from loneliness, study finds

A whopping number of the black stork nests in Estonia are inhabited by single birds who cannot breed due to lack of partner, a research led by the Estonian University of Life Sciences finds.

In Estonia, the rare black storks are living on the northernmost edge of their distribution range. In recent decades, the population of the species has significantly declined; however, no unequivocal reason to it has been found. At the same time, the breeding success of this large bird in Estonia is much lower than in the rest of Europe, including the neighbouring countries of Latvia and Lithuania.

A recently completed research by Estonian University of Life Sciences, NGO Eagle Club and the Estonian Environment Agency tried to find out the factors impacting the low breeding success of the black stork that has led to the decline of its Estonian population.

In the course of six years, automated cameras were installed close to the nests of the black storks all over Estonia in order to record events in the nest. Each year, up to twenty cameras were installed and a total of nearly 450,000 photos were analysed.

Too many singles

At first, the effect of predation on the breeding success was analysed, as the European pine marten was previously considered the main predator. However, the impact of predatory animals proved very low and a more surprising finding was made.

“As a surprise, it emerged that one third of the nests of the black stork in Estonia are inhabited by single birds who cannot breed due to lack of partner,” Ülo Väli, a senior researcher at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, said in a statement. Apparently, such single birds may also leave their nests and annoy breeding couples.

The research established that the black stork in Estonia lack partners who may have died on long migration routes or proceeded to breed elsewhere where living conditions are more favourable than in this country.

The scientists behind the research added that the results “enable to pinpoint how to plan further steps for the protection of the species”.

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Cover: A single black stork in Estonia (courtesy of Ülo Väli).

Smart devices don’t make you better in your work

The Estonian neuroscientist, Jaan Aru, explains why smartphone addiction can have negative consequences.

No one regrets in the last hour of their life that “I didn’t respond faster to an e-mail”. But for some reason, people think that constantly checking e-mails on a smart device and answering them right away is something important.

Why does the brain love to get addicted? The brain can be addicted to many different things. The reason is that it is evolutionary for the brain to learn important, correct and new things.

These important and correct things in our evolutionary history are, for example, where to get some good crops, where to find a good, fresh place with good berries, and so on. If there is something very good about something, certain chemicals will be triggered in the brain, which will lead to the fact that this thing will be learned right away, that the place or the way you obtained the food will be remembered.

It is very important that if there is something very good, then to learn quickly and right away about it. The problem is that we bring this brain into a modern society, where something very good and enjoyable for the brain can be obtained by injection or… by moving your thumb.

This is the reason why our brain can be very addicted nowadays. Our society has well-regulated access to drugs. The availability of tobacco and alcohol is regulated; minors are completely prohibited.

But let’s take smart devices. They certainly are addictive to the brain. It can be argued that they are not as dangerous as alcohol or drugs. But in the case of a smart device, there is a problem that it is not regulated at all.

We even promote the fact that children can already use smart devices. No one would think of giving children alcohol, something addictive.

Is a smart device equal to alcohol?

For me, as a brain scientist, the smart device is even worse. Potentially, we will ruin the brains of the next generation. If you’ve used it, then that moving your thumb brings something good for your brain, and of course you won’t be bothered to listen to a teacher who’s going to be talking about an hour or more. You just can’t!

Your brain simply doesn’t understand why you need to do this. You get that nice input much more easily from the phone.

And how does the sense of addiction work at that moment?

If you are a smoker, for example, and you go out after eating, you will have the urge to smoke immediately because it is a habit and the brain is accustomed to behave like that.

But we can’t smoke in all places (In Estonia, it’s forbidden to smoke in bars, pubs etc.). With a smart device, however, we have no borders, we have this smart device in our pocket all the time. If the brain is addicted, it will manifest that no matter whether you are doing your job, in a school class, or driving a car, then you will have the idea that I will look at my smartphone.

This urge cannot be suppressed even if it is rationally known that it is really stupid to take out the smart device when driving. Even knowing that it’s dangerous, you take out the device and still look at the message. It’s an addiction.

So how can we get rid of it?

For all addictions, people overvalue their willpower. At the same time, strong willpower is not enough – you must change your lifestyle. If you quit smoking, you leave the smoke breaks and find replacement activities; the addiction to smart devices goes the same way.

People waste their potential while on a smart device

It is very consciously worth reducing the time spent on smart devices. Establish a simple procedure for yourself: when the working day ends, well, you would like to reduce a little bit of the workday tension, then look ten minutes at your Instagram and Facebook. But then turn the smart device off and put it away for two to three hours.

If you sit on your smartphone for 20 to 30 minutes, and, for example, your child comes to ask something, and you say, “Ah, do what you want – mommy is resting a little bit”, then it’s showing signs of addiction.

Not to mention what an example you give to the child. Make sure you have certain rules. For example, if the children aren’t asleep, you don’t look at the smart device. And if the kids are asleep, you can take a little look again. But rules are not enough: you must also establish small punishments.

If you find yourself watching a smart device at this forbidden time, for example, then each time you’ll donate €5 to the political party you most hate. As with any other addiction, these methods work. Obviously, the majority of those who have a smart device problem think that it’s still not so serious – we can freely be in the car park with the smart device and that’s no addiction. In addition, there are still work things: we have very important work and e-mails that must be looked at all the time.

One characteristic of addiction is that a person justifies why he or she should do something. The most important step is to understand the problem. One thing to do is to note how many minutes or hours you spend on your smart device. If you write it up, you will see that this is an enormously large number and you will understand the problem. The human brain can focus on amazing things. Every person has this potential. But I see how people simply waste that potential while on a smart device.

I want to stress that in my estimation it is normal and good if, for instance, at work the ideas have run out and you just look at the smart device for a few minutes. It’ll help the brain rest a little.

The problem starts when you stay there. In any way or unintentionally, in the modern world, the need for information has grown. How do you make it clear to other people that you don’t want to be on the smartphone tonight?

Get rid of pseudo-job victories

One aspect of the problem is indeed that people have the feeling that they are better in their work if they respond faster to e-mails or messages. No, it’s not like that!

If you always make a reply quickly to an email or message at first, you never do anything important. You’re simply responding to e-mails and messages. This is the problem of today’s work – people have increasingly harder to understand what is original for a person trying to develop a product for several months or to come out with some new idea.

However, sending an instant message or email is an immediate thing. It’s fun for the brain and the person feels that he or she got something done. But we must get rid of such pseudo-job victories! Continuously checking your smartphone is worth limiting because it’s addictive.

Put your thinking ahead

If we want to be successful and innovative, we need to put our thinking ahead. We need to make the smartphones silent during work. Everyone will understand if you send this e-mail the next morning, the next day or the next week, because it’s not important.

What is important is that we use the capability that has been given to our brain. At the end of our lives, we don’t regret responding slowly to an e-mail.

What makes the human brain cool is that people are looking for something new and something exciting all the time. When we get new information on other people or just something interesting, it’s nice to our brain.

On the one hand, this is a problem, because it creates addiction, but on the other hand I am quite sure that it has also made us different from other animals. This is an important characteristic.

But we need to implement it properly. If we are on the side of more addiction, it might be easier to say that our brain is moving closer to other animals. However, if we can keep what makes us a person, we will continue to develop as a person and as a human being.

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This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by the University of Tartu blog. The images are illustrative (courtesy of Pexels.com).

Thirteen University of Tartu researches among the most influential in the world

The recently released 2018 Highly Cited Researchers Report by Clarivate Analytics includes 17 scientists from Estonia, 13 of whom work at the University of Tartu.

The Highly Cited Researchers Report lists over 6,000 most influential natural and social scientists of the last decade, based on the Web of Science database.

Last year the report listed more than 3,300 scientists, six of whom were affiliated with the University of Tartu.

Among the 6,000 most cited researchers of the world are the following Tartu University scientists: geneticists Andres Metspalu, Tõnu Esko, Reedik Mägi and Markus Perola; natural scientists Urmas Kõljalg, Leho Tedersoo, Martin Zobel (in two fields: plant and animal sciences and environment and ecology), Meelis Pärtel, Mari Moora, Kessy Aberenkov and Mohammad Bahram; physicist Heikki Junninen; and statistician Krista Fischer.

Punching above weight

The number of Estonian researchers on the list, including the University of Tartu researchers, doubled for the second year in a row. Besides the Tartu University researchers, this year’s list also contains Ülo Niinemets of the Estonian University of Life Sciences and three researchers of the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics: Angela Ivask, Anne Kahru and Kaja Kasemets.

“The fact that our results are better compared with our neighbours’ is an evidence of the success and the high level of Estonian science – there are no Latvian scientists on the list, there is one researcher from Lithuania, seven from Russia, six from Poland and 36 from Finland, two of whom are affiliated with the University of Tartu,” the university said in a statement.

The professor of experimental psychology, Jüri Allik, one of Estonia’s most influential experts in research metrics, said that Estonia looked like a scientific superpower. “Finland has a total of 36 names on the list, three times more than Estonia. However, as the population ratio is bigger, we are also better than Finland here,” Allik noted.

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Cover: University of Tartu’s historical main building.

Estonian and Spanish scientists discover a simple way to improve infertility treatment

Scientists from Estonia and Spain have published a study in Human Reproduction, a top journal in the field, that can benefit the couples who have experienced repeated IVF failure.

In 2017, more than 2,800 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures were carried out in Estonia, resulting in the birth of 430 babies, which accounts for 3% of all births.

However, at 15%, the success rate of IVF is low, caused by problems in several stages of the treatment. One of such stages is embryo implantation, which marks the beginning of the pregnancy. If the embryo is transferred into the uterus on the wrong day, even the best embryos cannot overcome this, resulting in a negative pregnancy test.

The task of the infertility treatment specialist is to recommend the best treatment for each patient. Female infertility can be caused by problems with endometrial (the inner uterine lining) receptivity. While in natural conception the developing embryo can “sit and wait” until the endometrium matures to peak receptivity, in IVF treatment it is of utmost importance to transfer the embryo on the correct day to increase the chances of pregnancy.

Adjusting the time of the embryo transfer

Different methods are used to assess endometrial receptivity, the most accurate of which is a test measuring the expression patterns of different genes in an endometrial biopsy. For this, a minimally invasive endometrial biopsy is taken in the cycle preceding the IVF cycle on the day the endometrium is supposedly the most receptive. Analysis of the expression patterns of specific marker genes provides vital information to decide whether the “right genes are expressed at the right time”. If needed, the time of the embryo transfer is adjusted, providing an example of precision medicine in infertility treatment.

The study by Estonian and Spanish scientists, published in Human Reproduction, a leading journal in the field of reproductive medicine, is based on the fact that the inner uterine lining consists of several different cell types. The novelty of the study lies in the fact that previous studies have not considered the effect of cell type proportions on endometrial gene expression profiles. This novel approach makes gene expression profile analysis more specific, thus also improving the performance of tests based on gene expression patterns.

The study was a natural progression to the earlier work of the research group based in the Estonian town of Tartu, which allows to improve IVF efficiency.

“It is common knowledge that the inner uterine lining includes different cell types; however, all the previous studies have consistently ignored this fact. Our work shows how to account for this variability in cellular composition, and thus considerably improve the accuracy of biomarker discovery,” Marina Suhorutšenko, the first author of the paper and a PhD student at the Institute of Clinical Medicine, University of Tartu, said in a statement.

In the clinical setting, only the whole tissue gene expression profile is usually analysed, as analysing cellular fractions separately is labour-intensive and expensive. “We have developed a pipeline that allows to skip this step, and instead uses a different data analysis approach to improve the accuracy without extra costs,” Suhorutšenko added.

The study results in a new endometrial receptivity test

Dr Triin Laisk, a research fellow at the Estonian Genome Centre, who coordinated the data analysis of the study, said the confounding effect of biopsy cellular composition has been largely ignored in the past, and not only in the field of reproductive medicine. “By taking it into account, we can decrease the amount of random and false positive findings, and eventually improve our knowledge on the biology behind different conditions, as well as facilitate the discovery of novel biomarkers,” she said.

The results of the study have immediate practical value, and the research team is currently working on how to integrate these findings into a genetic test that is used in infertility treatment clinics to select the best day for embryo transfer. The Tartu-based Competence Centre on Health Technologies, where the study was carried out, has developed an endometrial receptivity test called beREADY.

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The images are illustrative (Pexels).

An Estonian collaboration develops a smart barn

In cooperation with scientists from the University of Tartu, the southern Estonian organic farm, Koivakonnu, has developed an innovative livestock farm that is characterised by energy efficiency, thought-out thermal regulation and the maximum use of passive energy.

The Koivakonnu organic farm has been raising Hereford beef cattle for about twenty years. The new innovative barn helps it make its cattle farming more effective.

The new generation, energy-saving conception barn creates value to the farmer throughout the year. Solar energy can be used to the maximum, the barn is filled with light, and energy is created using solar panels. In the summer, the building catches up to 80 per cent of the solar radiation or 850 watts per square metre, enabling farmers to create a profitable extra source of income for themselves.

Thanks to the thought-out thermal regulation, the 500 square-metre building stays above zero degrees Celsius (32°F) during the winter. It takes only 700 kWh of network energy to maintain the right thermal conditions and for feeding, watering and lighting – at current prices, this makes about €70 per month.

“The novel barn conception was developed because of a simple wish to provide better care for our animals. We want to give them the best possible growing conditions, even during the dark and bleak Estonian autumn and winter months. This is especially important for young animals,” Tõnno Olonen from the Koivakonnu farm said.

Producing more beef

During the summer, the barn dries 100,000 kilograms (220,500 lbs) of hay in 48 hours taking 200 kWh of network energy or about €20 per day. By improving the production processes, the entire electric and thermal energy needed can be created autonomously.

“Generally, the unheated barns used in cattle farming mostly stand empty during the summer. With the new solution, the barn can make profit as a hay dryer or a well-ventilated greenhouse even during the months the animals are out on pastures,” Olonen said.

In a microclimate with optimal air circulation and temperature, the production of beef is higher. In the future, cost-effective special solutions for ventilation can be integrated into the airtight building; these solution would reduce the greenhouse gases emitted from the building.

It is also possible to raise the temperature above 60°C (140°F). This enables to handle manure in a novel way and, after emptying the barn, to sterilise the building with the combined effect of high temperature and UV radiation that kills dangerous pathogens.

A greenhouse full of light

According to Tauri Tätte, an engineer at the Tartu University Institute of Technology, the novel barn looks like a greenhouse full of light. The metal structure has been fitted with the most modern polycarbonate, and the technical content is complex and quite singular.

“Analysing technology and systems together with researchers and engineers from the university can often bring new and forward-looking solutions. The main prerequisite of every solution is to predict whether it can be used in view of future needs,” Tätte said. “In the development of the innovative barn, one of the significant directors was the fact that an energy system can be created that can produce electricity as well as heat economically.”

The constructional solution for the novel barn was created by the Koivakonnu organic farm and the sustainable agriculture solution was developed at the lab of the Intelligent Materials and Systems scientists from the Institute of Technology at the University of Tartu.

The model of the innovative barn can be seen currently at the SPARK demo hall in the Tartu town centre.

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This is an edited version of the article originally published on the Research in Estonia website. Cover: A computer image of the smart barn.

Jüri Allik: Four recipes for becoming a top researcher

Jüri Allik, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Tartu, belongs to the top one per cent of the world’s most cited scientists in his field. Here, Professor Allik unveils a few secrets to a researcher’s success.*

This article is brought to you in collaboration with the University of Tartu blog.

One might think there’s no need to write any more cookbooks. There’s a vast amount of these available for all tastes. Still, new cookbooks are written all the time, because the buyers are there. It’s the same with advice about practising science without leaving behind a trail of works no one has ever read.

Some time ago I wrote down some simple suggestions about becoming a good researcher. Most of these insights had something to do with time, with understanding that next to intelligence, time is the most limited resource. One has to learn to use it successfully. Surprisingly, the small story, published by University World News, became quite popular. Thus, violating the experimenter’s main mantra – there’s no need for repeating a successful experiment – I’ll try to share a few more suggestions about what could be of help in accomplishing something in the field of science.

Recipe no. 1: Listen carefully to those smarter than you

We didn’t pay too much attention when mother told us to wear warm socks or to avoid a bad habit such as biting our nails. Unfortunately, once independent, we tend to act in similarly unruly ways, especially when we have taken an academic course. There’s so much great advice that we just systematically ignore. Take, for example, “Avoid Boring People“, a book by James Watson that I’m really fond of.

Regrettably, the book was published around the time when Watson – the discoverer of DNA – made a misunderstood remark about African countries needing more brain and less financial help. As a result, the lessons of the man’s life received less attention than deserved. It is true, however, that many of the lessons in the book might be not so helpful, such as the piece of advice that one should rather buy a tailcoat than borrow it, which is useful strictly if no one in the family has gained a lot of weight over time.

On the other hand, the most useful tidbit – for me, at least – can be found right in the title: do avoid boring persons. Watson also suggests not giving dull speeches which someone else could deliver just as well. In life, and especially in science, there’s a really simple principle of reciprocity at work: if you don’t want people to bore you (with a story, a job, a meeting, an article or anything else), watch out and don’t be the one getting on others’ nerves. To be precise: you can leave the subpar articles for others to write. Although it might sometimes sound Utopian, it’s always wise to do things you are most interested in.

“If you don’t want people to bore you, watch out and don’t be the one getting on others’ nerves.”

It is surely impossible to always outright eschew boring people and things, but in all situations where you actually have a chance to do so, you should give a greater priority to options that help you avoid especially tedious people and activities. I’ve noticed that many scientists who got bored of research or whose work has not received due appreciation (or at least they feel that way), have turned into professional administrators.

Recipe no. 2: It makes sense to do the paperwork before others

There must be no other field of human activity more meticulously documented than science. Every visible sign of it, whether it be an article, a book or just a report at a conference, will, virtually at the time of its publication, find its way into databases that then track its subsequent fate – who has read it and found something important worth citing.

Most studies have a really short shelf-life, as no one reads them, or if someone does, he or she doesn’t find anything interesting enough to refer to. It’s just fine when a published work is being noticed and cited a few times in the next couple of years. Only a very small number of scientific publications leaves a big, lasting trail of citations. Compared to writers and poets, the scientist has so much more fun. A writer can be lucky if there are some charitable reviews in some newspaper or journal, but scientific databases track each and every time when someone has done something with a study.

“Compared to writers and poets, the scientist has so much more fun.”

Naturally, no one is interested in publishing studies that are dead on arrival. But science is complicated enough to make it surprisingly hard to predict the eventual fate of a published work. A prediction can go wrong in both ways. I know many studies, both by myself and others, that I consider brilliant and still, for some reason, the citations just won’t add up.

Then again, some pretty lightweight research works have resonated with invisible undercurrents that have turned them, quite undeservedly, into citation classics. Still, there’s one thing that can be relatively easily predicted. If a study is lacking in originality, then it takes a miracle and a large amount of good luck to make it visible enough for other researchers to refer to it excessively.

“If a study is lacking in originality, then it takes a miracle and a large amount of good luck to make it visible enough for other researchers to refer to it excessively.”

But how can you prove that no one has already used the same idea before? If there is a person with encyclopaedic knowledge nearby, you should ask him or her. But such smarty pants are a rare breed and, to make things worse, their knowledge never encompasses everything. Just like in real life, young scientific-minded people tend to fall in love with the first idea they discover.

Still, science can be different from real life. Here, those who are able constantly to abandon the first tempting ideas, and go on with the search for something even more perfect, often end up being the luckiest. But the young ones are really impatient and full of desire to do something practical right away, although it might not be the sharpest idea they could muster.

My second recipe declares that it would be wise to hold your horses and, before getting at it, spend enough time grasping the paperwork of science. Just like a professional musician practices his or her chosen instrument every day, a scientist should check through at least a couple articles published in the four or five most important journals of his or her field every day.

“A scientist should check through at least a couple articles published in the four or five most important journals of his or her field every day.”

But this recipe comes with a warning. It can be dangerous for your health. Every time somebody publicly talks about the citability of scientific works in Estonia, a small group of people has something akin to screaming meemies. From seemingly disturbed minds quite toxic comebacks are brought to light and certain things are said, such as: “No serious scientist knows how much his or her studies are cited”;  ”Serious science and citations are separated, as referrals are mostly made because of popularity” or – especially – when the study has major flaws; “Citations have no relevance in natural sciences as they are essentially random in the humanities and social sciences”.

It can get really absurd with claims that the ‘real’ scientist is known only to a small band of specialists and his or her almost nonexistent body of work is never cited by anyone. A certain screwball who hasn’t yet produced a study of real worth, wrote in the Estonian cultural newspaper “Sirp” that I must be spending all my days in databases, searching for citations of my works.

I can truly confess that I do spend much of my days scanning databases, especially the Web of Science (WoS) (One of the most inane accusations thrown out by haters of bibliometry is that the WoS must not be trusted, because it is owned by Thomson Reuters, a private company. Millions of euros from European taxpayers were wasted on fighting WoS, resulting in a dead-born list of journal headlines, collectively called the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH). Almost immediately most of the list got referenced in WoS).

It’s also true that I regularly review published quotations of my studies, so I can find out if there are any important developments in the fields in which I take part. Sometimes these studies can offer useful hints about which direction to go with my own research, but there are two cases in which databases are extremely helpful.

First, when an editor has to find a reviewer for a new study – somebody who is occupied with the same problem. Second, databases are really useful when I’m writing an article myself. With a database, one can easily get rid of the most bothersome part of this endeavour – compiling the list of referenced works. A really smart computer programme picks out all the necessary citations from the database and automatically creates the list of cited works, precisely following the format required by the journal. Also, databases really are the best way to make sure that no important study has accidentally gone unreferenced.

To cut it short, in reviewing the citation patterns one can get quite a lot of information about the thing that’s being studied. With a little practice, it soon takes just a glimpse to find out if the quotation in hand is about a significant first-time discovery, an important theory, a useful overview – or if we have a case of ritualistic citation, a sign that the author hasn’t even bothered to open the cited study.

Database usage has become much more democratic, too. For example, access to Google Scholar (GS) is, in contrast to the WoS, completely free. Everyone can freely download the Publish or Perish search engine that makes finding information in this environment even easier. Also, it was recently made possible for just about everyone to create a personal citations profile in the GS and make it visible there. It’s worth mentioning that there’s no cost – you can just check in the morning how much and where your work was cited during the night. I was surprised to find out that during the final days of the last year, the number of times my work was cited had exceeded 6,000 – not bad a result for a psychologist.

This recipe means that exploring a problem in a database saves time that otherwise would have been spent on collecting data or conducting experiments that could have actually been omitted or performed differently. Before acting out, it is smart to make certain that somebody else hasn’t already done the same thing better or proven your chosen method wrong.

Recipe no. 3: Think big

A lot of things that researchers have to do might seem terribly boring to an outside observer. Long hours drag on with what at first sight seems quite a meaningless work. For example, just tuning an instrument needed in an experiment or developing a protocol for some analysis may take weeks. Endless hours can be wasted looking for mistakes in the master or processing program for an experiment.

When there’s a lot of data, even routine processing can last day upon day upon day. Many experience almost panicked fear when it’s time to start writing an article, and are willing to exchange the activity for something safer, such as cataloguing stuff or cleaning the instruments. If these distinct stages of research are not constantly translated into the language of the final goal, the meaning of it all can easily become lost in translation.

The most typical mistake is getting bogged down in technical details and ignoring the cooperative principle of communication as formulated by the philosopher and linguist Paul Grice. Nobody expects that a scientist would speak obliviously about details that are interesting or even comprehensible to himself or herself only. The message sent out to the world must be true but it must not contain too much information. It has to be clear and relevant.

“The message sent out to the world must be true but it must not contain too much information. It has to be clear and relevant.”

It’s not friendly to the listener to talk about details that are exciting and essential only to the speaker. The cooperativity of communication also shows when something is discussed in such a way that the conversation partner can understand it and is interested, because it is enunciated in terms that are just specific and reasonable enough.

When a researcher describes the things happening in his or her laboratory solely in the terms of protocol, it might be precise but not very inviting and cooperative for the receiver who wants to hear the answer mainly in the form of principles, rules, and theories. The gist of it all can always be expressed in a couple of simple sentences, also understandable to a layperson.

It might be different with physics, but in the fields of psychology and other social sciences it often seems that the researchers just don’t have big problems to solve. When asked what is being studied, the scientists may name a field of knowledge or some intriguing phenomena or effect. Apparently, it is important to reach the most precise possible description of the given phenomena. For example, a sociologist might know the exact per cent of the global population that during the last ten years has answered the question: “Considering everything, I am content with my life” with “totally agree”, as well as the per cent who has answered: “Not at all”. But the sociologist might have nothing to say about what these answers actually reflect.

“Nothing mobilises you better than the knowledge that the problem being solved is important and the solution will be useful for everyone.”

My experience says that if young researchers fall too deep into the maze of numbers and per cents, soon the shine starts to leave their eyes and their souls become filled with tedium. Because of that, my third recipe is quite simple: You always have to keep your eyes on some big and important problem that you are trying to solve. Nothing mobilises you better than the knowledge that the problem being solved is important and the solution will be useful for everyone. Simply put, although science mostly involves operating locally and settling really specific and practical problems, you have to think big.

Recipe no. 4: Never give up

In 1982 – the same year the coffin with the body of Leonid Brezhnev was dropped into its grave next to the Kremlin – one of my first articles was published in the Vision Research journal. Henk Spekreijse, the chief editor, accepted my manuscript with practically no corrections, although one of the reviewers wrote that the purpose of such an article could not be understood. Still, Spekreijse wrote in his verdict that we should ignore this opinion and just make some minor adjustments to the text.

For a short while, I had the illusion that all journals were staffed with similarly wonderful editors who were all for new talents showing up. Now, almost 30 years later and about 150 articles smarter, I can safely say that it has remained virtually the only time that my manuscript was published without major corrections.

Every researcher could write a heavy novel about his or her adventures with editors. I had one of my first unpleasant experiences with the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – the most cited journal in the field of psychology. I had sent my manuscript well over half a year ago but the editor hadn’t answered. When I asked about it, an apologetic letter arrived wherein the editor explained that his back had suddenly become pained, so he wasn’t able to bend down and reach the shelf where he had put our study when it had arrived. Being an outgoing person, he had forwarded the manuscript to a couple of friends with a predictable outcome. Of course, the friends advised him to reject it, without paying much attention.

This was many years before the electronic editing system was applied. I wrote a protest letter to the American Psychological Association, the publisher of the journal. Its chairman sent me an answer stating that he knew the editor personally and had no reason to think that we’d been treated unjustly. We just didn’t have enough luck.

Still, I have got the impression that the more important and better the article (at least for its author), the harder it is to publish it. Around 1976 I had a great idea, but for many reasons I could only realize it 25 years letter. Although it was a very simple model describing how a programme of eye movements was being prepared, the manuscript was rejected by seven journals!

A really influential journal offered a review in which the author mostly praised the study but suggested getting rid of a supposedly ugly graph and replacing it with something more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, he never reached the place in the text where it was stated that this “ugly graph” was in fact a prediction of the model, passing through all the points indicating the results of the experiment with no major deviations.

Later, our manuscript was rejected again because the editor couldn’t accept the statement that our explanation had less degrees of freedom than the former, traditional one. After a heated written exchange with the editor it was finally understood that he had no idea about degrees of freedom, as well as the number of their different values needed to explain a phenomenon. Although all the protesting didn’t save the study, I felt somehow satisfied because I hadn’t tolerated injustice.

This fourth recipe is important because young people don’t imagine that with hard work you can write the study even in a week, but publishing it make take literally years. Even the rise of open-access journals where the author must pay for the publication of articles hasn’t decreased the percentage of rejected manuscripts. It depends on the field, but is often about 80–90 percent; the “softer” the field, the higher the percentage. A lot of studies won’t even be reviewed because they have already been rejected before by the editors as unsuitable in some way.

It is not rare for a manuscript that has been changed twice, following the reviewers’ instructions, to get rejected still because of differing opinions between the author and the reviewers. A significant portion of a scientist’s life is spent reading reviews, rewriting manuscripts, writing explanations for editors and reviewers, and sending the articles that have been rejected from somewhere to the next journal in the top list.

“It is not rare for a manuscript that has been changed twice, following the reviewers’ instructions, to get rejected still because of differing opinions between the author and the reviewers.”

It is also not a rare thing for a manuscript to pass as many as 10 journals before it is published somewhere. It is possible that this is the struggle for survival, beneficial to science, that weeds out more vital articles. Recently, a study was published in Science Journal, claiming that articles rejected in other journals receive more citations than those that are accepted right away.

So, today’s final recipe asserts that one has to be ready for a sturdy and long-lasting fight with journal editors and reviewers. I know people who have abandoned writing articles for good or given up trying to publish them in proper international journals after their first one was rejected. In no way must you let this happen. On 29 October, 1941, Winston Churchill talked to the students of Harrow School and laid out the recipe to his success: “Never give in – never, never, never, never in nothing great or small, large or pretty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense”.

If the editor wants to revise the article, you must take the chance. You should put all other urgent things on hold and get going with corrections of the study and putting together an explanatory letter for the editor. If the manuscript has been rejected from some journal without the right of presenting it again, you should send it to some other journal the same day.

All this applies, of course, when you haven’t already become disappointed with your study and decided that there’s no use in publishing it. If you feel that the editor and reviewers have treated you unjustly, then you can’t just tolerate the injustice. Never!

There is very little chance of the editor admitting his or her mistake. As a rule, editors don’t want to do this. But if you peacefully and steadily point out all that you perceive to be unjust, it can be of great benefit to other authors following after you. Editors mostly can’t allow rumours about their academic reputation to erode and spread too far, and it’s much easier to continue living when you know that you haven’t remained ignorant of an obvious injustice.

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* This article was first published in April 2013. Cover: Prospective students at the Tallinn University (the image is illustrative).

Tallinn Technology University’s researcher receives a prestigious European grant

The senior researcher of the Tallinn University of Technology’s department of innovation and governance, Vasilis Kostakis, has been awarded a €1.1 million European Research Council starting grant – the only such grant awarded to an Estonian researcher this year.

According to the university, Kostakis will use the grant for a four-year research project titled “Cosmolocalism” that will advance understanding of the future of work in the age of automation and beyond.

“We will create an interdisciplinary team consisted of three postdoctoral researchers and at least four PhD students,” Kostakis said in a statement. “We will utilise our networks with global changemakers, from governments and top-universities such as Harvard, MIT and ETH Zurich to prominent NGOs such as the Greenpeace or the P2P Foundation, to create awareness of new forms of production that may be more free, fair and sustainable.”

One of the biggest recognitions

According to Erkki Karo, the director of the university’s department of innovation and governance, a European Research Council grant is one of the biggest recognitions for a scientist in Europe. The starting grants are highly competitive and may be awarded up to €1.5 million for a period of five years, allowing young scholars to concentrate on their groundbreaking research, the university said in a statement.

Kostakis obtained his PhD and MA degrees at the Tallinn University of Technology. He works as a senior researcher at the university’s department of innovation and governance and is also a faculty associate at Harvard University, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.

The department of innovation and governance at the Tallinn University of Technology is one of the largest public administration and innovation research centres in the Baltic Sea region.

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Cover: Vasilis Kostakis.

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