SCIENCE  of  LATVIA: Policy. Documents ________________________________________

Opening Address to the General Meeting
of the Latvian Academy of Sciences (22 February 2001)

 Jānis Stradiņš,
President of the Latvian Academy of Sciences

We have to make decisions and proposals for the progress of the Academy of Sciences, and we have to make our opinion known to the government and public on how to improve the situation in science and how to make dialogue with the government. Since the time Latvia regained independence ten years ago, we have continuously tried to define the place of science in the newly independent country. Transition from science in a big country to science in a small country, transition from science in a closed society to science in an open society, transition from a planned state funding to work under market economy, change of generations – all these are contradictory and painful processes all over Central and Eastern Europe and not only in Latvia. Yet science in Latvia seems to have always been an unloved child, as from among all candidate states of the European Union Latvia’s science receives the lowest funding, and in the total labour of Latvia the proportion of researches takes the second place from the end. I fully share the dramatically true thesis of the academic speech by State President V. Vīķe-Freiberga that “on the threshold of the new millennium (..) university education and science in Latvia are facing a serious crisis. The crisis is so serious that the next few years could become fatal for them. To this effect the State of Latvia and Latvia’s public are before a serious choice: either we take all efforts to change, adapt and perfect ourselves, or we will sentence ourselves to a long-term stagnation and increasingly evident lagging behind our European neighbours, both the close and the far ones”.

We understand well that Latvia is a poor country and that aside from science it has other, perhaps, more urgent needs. Yet also other candidate states are facing a similar situation, and I do not wish to agree that Latvia’s science is less qualitative than that of the neighbour countries, where the percentage of science in the GDP is higher than that in Latvia.

… in Latvia science is alive and will perhaps go  into history for its ability to survive under the tough diet prescribed by the Saeima (Parliament) and government, and not only to survive, but also to produce results noticed in the world. Through many years        the Academy of Sciences has taken efforts to prevent the worst – the collapse of science, to amortize the negative. The situation of science though seems to be more successful than that of industrial production and agriculture, although in all the above spheres the processes are extremely different and are proceeding according to  Malthus scenario: the strongest survives, transforms itself and attracts resources from without (from Europe, from the NATO), however, not always the most active ones are the best ones.

Science is a Trinity – it ensures qualitative academic education, ensures national identity in the sphere of culture, as ensures the development of advanced innovative technologies and high techs.  Even though some people try to lessen the role of science in the world, yet just science is the foundation for modern culture, innovative country and society. In the era of rapid globalisation and increasingly fast innovations, only a well-weighed, rational, strategically resourceful, adequate and far-sighted policy of higher education and science gives a real chance to catch up with the developed countries and stay with them within the visible period of time and not to glide into the zone of chronic backwardness and poverty with almost no way out. We have to define – and it has already been done - the priority fields for research, yet at the same time it should be underlined that in any independent country the development of science needs a balanced approach. Any strategically significant branch has to be maintained at least at a limited level, minimum functional temperature shall be maintained for our own specialists and experts to appear. Among other things, the State of Latvia has to provide special guarantees for the development of the humanities and social sciences, as the preservation and investigation of national cultural heritage, reception of the latest ideas from the world culture, the humanities and social sciences can ensure intellectual independence and identity of the country in the era of globalisation and cosmopolitism. I think currently this part of science is suffering most seriously.

Funding of science has to be increased by all means. The average age of scientists is rapidly growing. Infrastructure is not being renewed. With regard salaries, scientists likewise doctors, nurses and people engaged in the sphere of culture, belong to the layer of intellectual proletariat. This attitude first of all negatively affects the quality of university education, and consequently also the level of general education. Attempts of the government to save the situation in education at the lowest level, by only raising teachers’ salaries, won’t bring the expected results. Besides, lacking highly skilled specialists, Latvia’s economy would become fully dependent on foreign investors and foreign firms, state administration would be left without experts, but national economy and social sphere – without high technologies and prospects for development.

The authorities have listened to the proofs of scientists with understanding, yet no action followed, and the national budget for 2001 does not foresee additional resources to support science.

A week ago, we discussed two important concepts at the meeting of the Academy: a concept for sustainable development of Latvia and a concept for innovations of Latvia.

Participants expressed concern that foreign investments would come fully ignoring local scientists, their recommendations and products. Apparently in many cases the state, the Cabinet of Ministers and ministries should offer state support programmes. The Saeima and the Cabinet have to take a political decision certifying that science in general and innovative science in particular is a national priority, likewise the European Union decided about the knowledge based economy in Lisbon last year. For this priority to match, to the effect of political support, Latvia’s progress to the NATO and for Latvia to have not only a common employment area with the EU, but also a common knowledge and research area, as it has already been declared.

One more quotation from the academic speech by the President of Latvia – “in making the policy of the state, the self-evident truth is to be understood and admitted that resources spent for education and science are not the expenses like those, e. g., spent on fuel that is used for heating at a given moment, and that uses the allotted money and it has as if gone up on smoke. Here it’s not the case. A large portion of resources spent in these fields should be considered as an investment. It will by all means be a long-term investment that will start bearing fruit only in several years. So it will be the investment with a certain risk factor, since it is not possible to foresee in advance, which priority or which field will turn out to be more perspective. However, it is more than clear that it is the investment nobody can do without”.

Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Minister, we wish to regularly reiterate these self-evidences and guarantee that we will try to make good use of the resources allotted for science. We are very pleased to learn about your readiness to start a dialogue, which was particularly well seen during the last month. I think we could come to terms as to which fields deserve additional support, and could form working groups to work out quite concrete proposals already for the next budget.

In case in the tenth year of restored independence Latvia sees a strategic change for a knowledge based country, towards science, education, advanced technologies, correct understanding of basic sciences and national sciences, in case the wonder happens, our life and efforts would have not been in vain. In a long-term perspective such an approach would bear a lot of new fruit for Latvia, would give strong dynamics to all Baltic region.