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RIO Country Report Estonia 2015

The annual RIO Country Report offers an analysis of the R&I system in Estonia, including relevant policies and funding, with particular focus on topics critical for EU policies. The report identifies the main challenges of the Estonian research and innovation system and assesses the policy response. 


R&I Challenges

Intensifying prioritisation and specialisation in the research and innovation system

Challenge description: 

Estonia received country specific recommendations in the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 European semester cycles. The Council recommendations have been almost identical during the years 2013-2015 and they focus on intensifying prioritisation and specialisation in the research and innovation system. The 2015 CSR is worded as follows: "Focus public support for research and innovation on a coordinated implementation of the limited number of smart specialisation areas."
Estonia does not have a separate national or regional R&I strategy on Smart Specialisation. Instead, the country's smart specialisation framework comprises the Entrepreneurship Growth Strategy (adopted by the government in October 2013) and the Research, Development and Innovation Strategy (adopted in January 2014).
Synergy in the implementation of the two strategies is critical for stimulating RD&I investment in Estonia. Part of the problem is exactly the fact that the S3 is "divided" among two strategic documents and it is not clear to what extent the focus of the S3 priorities is shared between the public research and the business sector. Moreover, according to the Innovation Union progress report 2014 for Estonia, there is little correlation between the areas of Estonia's scientific production (measured by the number of publications) and technological production (patents).

Policy Response: 

The two above mentioned strategies, the Entrepreneurship Growth Strategy and the Research, Development and Innovation Strategy 2014-2020 came as a response to the CSRs of 2013 and 2014 on fostering the prioritisation and the specialisation of the research and innovation systems. In the Implementation plan for the RDI strategy approved in September 2014, the responsibilities for R&D policies have been clarified, the process of establishing smart specialisation growth areas has been set up and growth areas have been narrowed down. The S3 process was guided by the Estonian Development Fund.
Estonia has identified the following smart specialisation growth areas:

• ICT supporting other sectors (use of ICT in industry including automation and robotics, cyber security, software development);
• Health technologies and services (biotechnology, e-health);
• Resource efficiency (material science and industry, knowledge-based construction, health-promoting food industry, chemical industry).

The budget for Smart Specialisation in 2014-2020 (including structural funds and state budget co-financing) is planned to be about €140m (Estonian Development Fund, February 2015), which is a significant amount considering that the total Estonian GERD in 2013 was €326m.
In its Estonia 2020 Action Plan 2014-2018, the government plans to launch a smart specialisation monitoring system in 2015, to develop a longer term and more strategic model of cooperation for technology development centres and (industrial) clusters, linking both formats to smart specialisation and to start the SF funded programme “Supporting applied research in growth areas of smart specialisation” 2015 - 2020.

Policy assessment: 

Now that Estonia has come up with its smart specialization areas (although the process has been rather top-down, oscillating between narrowing down and broadening the priorities not necessarily as an outcome of an entrepreneurial discovery process), it needs to set up a sound implementation system to support it. The operational programmes have been approved but the instruments that have been designed to support smart specialization are too recent to be assessed. In any case, the key issue in successfully addressing the 2015 CSR is to ensure synergies in the implementation of the two strategic documents related to RD&I and to avoid an overlap of measures that are too small and too fragmented to be impactful. In order for public spending to be maximally efficient, investing in smart specialisation high-growth areas to increase the return on public investment in R&D should be the guiding principle for targeting priority areas (OECD, 2014). Through the Estonian Entrepreneurship Growth Strategy, the government aims to shift to a more market-based approach to public support, with fewer direct grants and more financial instruments, including venture capital. Whether this would be a successful strategy remains to be seen.

Enhancing collaboration between science and industry and research commercialization

Challenge description: 

The need to address the weak cooperation between science and business is identified as a major challenge of the Estonian R&I system in the CSRs for 2012, 2013 and 2014 as well as the Country Reports issued by the European Commission in the frame of the European Semester exercise. There seems to be an inherent mismatch between the needs of the business sector and the provision of knowledge from the public sector.
There are many factors that signal that the level of knowledge transfer and research commercialization is low in Estonia. The share of privately funded publicly performed R&D as a share of the research spending (GERD), a proxy indicator for the collaboration between academia and business, was 1.96% of GERD in 2013 and 2.09% in 2014, below the EU-28 average4. In addition, according to the Community Innovation Survey 2012 only 10.8% of the total sample of innovative companies cooperate with universities and higher education institutions (compared to almost 18.9% in Lithuania). Even less - 5% cooperate with government or public or private research institutes but this is not surprising considering that the share of government research performing organizations (RPOs) is relatively small and their profile (mostly humanitarian) does not match the needs of productive enterprises. Finally, only 3.8% of public R&D is contracted by private enterprises.
In spite of the increase in the number of cases involving IPR protection, marketing of IPR remains a challenge. The revenue from IPR commercialisation has remained relatively marginal in Estonia. Connecting to large international networks for IPR commercialisation and acquiring a highly-skilled labour force to work towards commercialisation are still difficult in Estonia (see Challenge 3). Both the legal framework for protecting intellectual property and the university financing system (mostly project-based) discourage universities from becoming more active in basic R&D and from increasing the number of contracts entered into with companies although there are positive developments in this respect (see the section on policy response).

Policy Response: 

Estonia's National Reform Programme 2014 acknowledges the need to further strengthen cooperation between research institutes and companies but is vague on specific actions.

One positive development is that the number of research contracts has tripled. This is partially due to the fact that baseline funding of RPOs takes into consideration the volume of RDI contracts with the private and public sector (40% of total) and the number of patents and patent applications (counted respectively 3- and 2-fold higher than scientific publications).
As regards specific knowledge transfer promotion programs, clusters and technological development centres are being set up. The 2014-2020 Technological Development centres (competence centres) programme (opened its new round in November 2014, continuing from the previous programming period) provide Estonia’s entrepreneurs with opportunities for cooperation in the development of new technologies, products and services and aims to increase qualified staff in business-oriented R&D, and their movement between businesses and research institutions. Estonia has also introduced innovation voucher grants for SMEs. The 2014-2020 Cluster Development Programme (new round opened in June 2015) aims to increase the value added of companies and the sales of their products/services (including exports) as well as to promote cooperation between companies and research institutions. The Ministry of Education and Research launched the new activity Support for applied research in the areas of smart specialisation in August 2015. The aim is to support enterprises tendering applied research or product development from Estonian public R&D institutions and about 1/3 of financing should come from enterprises.
Estonia is also in the process of renewing its patent and intellectual property rights system. The Ministry of Justice established an Expert Group on the Codification of the Intellectual Property Law. The whole intellectual property system would be thoroughly examined. Although the initial plan was to create new laws, after thorough analysis the Expert group reached a conclusion that right now it is more feasible to wait and see what will be decided on the EU level and until then make some necessary minor amendments to the existing law (Ministry of Justice, 2015). The Agreement on a Unified Patent Court has been signed by the Government of Estonia in 2013, but has not yet been ratified by the Parliament.
In January 2013, a new institution was created – the Estonian Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Centre, which took over the activities of the Estonian Patent Information Centre.

Policy assessment: 

Estonia has a relatively strong public research system, with a high level of public R&D expenditures and decent performance in terms of public-private co-publications.5 However, the number of companies undertaking development and innovation activities is still low.6 Moreover, entrepreneurial culture is still underdeveloped in Estonian universities and thus requires more effective incentive systems, e.g. modifications to the university IPR policies, vamping up the existing knowledge transfer offices, and entrepreneurial training. The latter is especially important as according to the ERAC peer review the problem lies more in the risk-averse culture of universities and businesses than in restrictions in laws and regulations.
More fundamentally, the mismatch between the needs of the business sector and the provision of knowledge from the public sector is not simply a failure to commercialise scientific activity but also a result of the R&D support system being focused on areas other than those that dominate Estonia’s economy today (see Challenge 1).

However, the recently introduced measures for applied research in the smart specialization areas are a positive development.
R&D measures (in the 2007-2013 period) have had a less pronounced impact than expected in terms of encouraging companies to use universities’ research facilities and some measures have reportedly increased the administrative burden on companies. Similarly to its Baltic neighbours, Estonia's policies during the 2007-2013 period were characterized by a strong focus on infrastructure/capacity development and less on supporting collaboration and building networks. A positive development is the fact that the new strategic documents for 2014-2020 focus on obtaining social and economic results from these capacities and infrastructures. However, the key challenge remains the level of effectiveness of the attempts to create synergies between the specific policy measures and focus them on a limited number of priorities.

STI internationalisation and addressing the scarcity of highly-skilled human resources

Challenge description: 

The basic skills levels of young people in Estonia are high. The country's results in the 2012 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are very strong. Performance has significantly improved since 2009 in all tested areas (reading, mathematics and science) and Estonia now ranks in the top tier of EU countries participating in the survey. However, the specific skills sought by innovative enterprises seem to be in a short supply. The ERAC Peer Review points out that the scarcity of skilled human resources is currently a bottleneck for developing the RD&I system in Estonia. The pool of RD&I competent talent is small and easily absorbed by the needs of a few (larger) enterprises. Although there has been progress in recent years, Estonia is still suffering from a low number of new doctoral graduates and the share of foreign doctoral students remains low (DG RTD, 2014).
High levels of "brain drain" and low attractiveness of research careers remain constant challenges (ERAC, 2012). For highly qualified foreign faculty and researchers to settle in Estonia, the drawback is often the salary level, which is not internationally competitive and the standard of living is not high enough. Moreover, the Estonian language requirements for recruitment of research staff hampers the internationalisation of the research system. Nevertheless the number of foreign students and professors-researchers is growing steadily.
As far as participation in EU FPs is concerned, Estonia's share of EU FP7 contributions received between 2006 and 2014 (compared with FP6) is higher than the EU-13 average and is on par with the EU-15 countries (JRC-IPTS, 2015). This signals that Estonian excellent researchers are actively participating in international consortia. However, while Estonian top scientists are well integrated internationally, this is not the case for the overall research community in Estonia (EC SWD, 2013). This is partially a result of the fact that Estonian RD&I policy-making has been fragmented and overly concentrated on scientific excellence and high technologies, neglecting domestic economic structure (see Challenge 2 assessment part). The Estonian science system follows very different specialization from the business sector (see Challenges 1 and 2) as it finances and supports mostly curiosity-driven excellent basic research in fields such as physics, chemistry and earth sciences for which there is little immediate economic demand.

Policy Response: 

The Estonian authorities acknowledge the need for special attention regarding fostering the internationalisation of the research and innovation systems in all National Reform Programmes (NRPs).
The Ministry of Education and Research is planning to continue the Doctoral Studies and Internationalisation programme "DoRa" in the new programming period. The measure supports doctoral studies (for both domestic and foreign researchers) conducted in close cooperation with universities and companies based in Estonia in the form of scholarships designed to motivate students to choose areas of study closely related to the needs of key industries.
There is also some progress in improving the relevance of education for the labour market - the 2014-2020 Lifelong Learning Strategy was adopted in February 2014 and the “Programme for linking better labour market needs and training” was approved in April 2015 with the aim to harmonise the training (study) opportunities better with the market demand and increase the number of people with professional qualifications.
In addition, attracting international students and highly qualified specialists from outside the EU has been facilitated by amendments to the Aliens Act adopted in autumn 2013. According to the most recent NRP, although the goal to admit 2,000 foreign students by 2015 has been achieved, measures that support internationalisation will be continued.
Last but not least, Estonia is actively involved in local Baltic initiatives. For example, through the BSR Innovation Express Call in 2013, 28 new international collaboration projects were established. The joint Baltic Sea Research and Development Programme BONUS, the aim of which is to combine scientific research of the Baltic Sea conducted in individual countries into an interdisciplinary, long-term, integrated programme aiming for sustainable development of the Baltic region, was under implementation in 2014. This programme plans to promote multilateral research of high scientific level.

Policy assessment: 

Estonia has been active in addressing the human resources and internationalization issue and some results are already visible (e.g. increase in the number of doctoral students and foreign students). This challenge is very important because it is interconnected with the previously described challenges – in order to move up the technological ladder and to achieve the strategic aim to translate acquired capacities into societal benefits Estonia needs people with good qualifications. However, as a small country with small population Estonia cannot build up critical mass and solve its talent challenge alone and needs to be as integrated in international networks as possible.
There is an inherent rationale for continuing the utilisation of the European research and innovation support instruments in Estonia, including Horizon 2020. In addition, the synergies and opportunities opening up within the Baltic Sea Region and Nordic countries should continue to be actively pursued. To derive maximum benefit from transnational R&I collaboration, relevant national R&I measures could include an international dimension, stimulate partnerships and open up for international partners and clusters. On a similar note, the smart specialisation priority areas could also seek to involve international partners. Last but not least, it's in the interest of Estonian R&D institutions and universities to continue to attract as much talent (PhD students, researchers, professors) from abroad as possible.


1. Overview of the R&I system

According to the latest Innovation Union Scoreboard (2015), despite some progress in the recent years, Estonia’s innovation performance is still below the EU average. Estonia’s performance relative to that of the EU average has been improving from 81% in 2007 to 94% in 2013 but fell to 88% in 2014 which is the reason why the country lost its position as an innovation follower and is now classified as a moderate innovator.

The overall level of R&D investments as a percentage of GDP almost doubled in 2008-2011 (from 1.26% to 2.34%), but slid back to 2.16% on 2012. In 2013 and 2014 GERD as a percentage of GDP (1.74% and 1.46% respectively) fell below the EU-28 average of 2.03% due to declining business R&D investment (from 1.29% of GDP in 2012 to 0.54% in 2014) reflecting a one-off investment boom in oil shale research and technology in 2011 – 2012 by a single company – Eesti Energia. This indicates that Estonian business R&D is concentrated in a limited number of companies.

2. Recent developments in research and innovation policy and systems

Key developments in the R&I system in 2015 included:

  • In January, the full report on the “Research and Development and Innovation Strategy 2007-2013 “Knowledge-based Estonia 2007-2013” was presented to the government. According to the report, Estonia’s RDI system has developed considerably - the number of top-level scientific publications has been growing from 0.8 to 1.43 top-level publications per 1000 inhabitants; the share of scientists and engineers in the total labour force rose from 5.6 to 7.1 persons per 1000 employees; a lot has been achieved on the modernisation of infrastructure and technology, internationalisation of research and on science popularisation. The main challenge is to further develop the research and innovation system in ways that it will have bigger impact on the society.
  • The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications carried out evaluations of enterprise and innovation policy to assess the measures implemented and the impact, effectiveness and feasibility of those measures: the implementation and the potential of demand-side innovation policy instruments were assessed and the designed financial instruments from the Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 funds were evaluated ex-ante, giving suggestions for use of financial instruments such as loans, state guarantees and credit insurance.

3. Public and private funding of R&I and expenditure

The economic crisis affected seriously the Estonian economic output but the post-crisis fiscal adjustment process has not come at the expense of public support to the Estonian R&D. Even though the country was under pressure to implement fiscal consolidation with pro-cyclical government expenditure patterns, it has maintained, and soon after the peak of the crisis, increased its public spending on R&D. In other words, the sharp decrease in GDP and total government expenditure was not matched by a proportional drop in R&D expenditure. The relatively stable financing was partially due to the previously committed EU Structural Funds, notwithstanding the 9% drop of the regular support measures of R&D activities in MER budget in 2009.

4. Quality of science base and priorities of the European Research Area

Estonia is well aligned with many ERA policies, but its capacity (human and financial resources) to participate in different international initiatives is limited because of the size of the country; consequently, choices have to be made for optimum use of those resources.

5. Framework conditions for R&I and science-business cooperation

The Estonian R&I policies demonstrate a strong focus on the promotion of knowledge transfer and support for applied research and higher education specialization in the areas of smart specialization, as well as a gradual shift towards increased use of financial instruments.

6. Conclusions

The three identified challenges put forward in the executive summary are summarised in the conclusions. The chapter lists relevant policy actions, assesses their appropriateness, efficiency and effectiveness, and provides links to relevant evidence (based on evaluations or empirical analyses).

Geo coverage
Report year
Official publication date
Tuesday, 3 May, 2016
Country Report file
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