SCIENCE  of  LATVIA: Policy. Documents ________________________________________

Guidelines of Science in Latvia: 
Historical Development and Contemporary Real Facts

 Janis Stradins
President of the Latvian Academy of Sciences

Paper presented at the 8th  Baltic Conference on Intellectual Co-operation
(Tallinn, Estonia, June 15 -16, 2001)

Published in: 
National Strategies of Research in Smaller European Countries. Tallinn: Estonian Academy of Sciences, 2001,  pp. 41-46.


The science strategy of Latvia could have started developing after the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia in 1918, however, during the first independence such a strategy was not made. On the territory of Latvia, research and institutions of university education historically saw development either within a superpower (Tsarist Empire, USSR), or within a small country (Republic of Latvia). During the Tsarist period, Tartu University functioned as a common centre of university education for the present-day Estonia and Latvia. Alongside with it, a real technical university – Riga Polytechnicum functioned in Riga since 1862. Academic freedom ruled in both institutions, and not so much the needs of the Empire (or the specific needs of the city of Riga) determined research strategy there, but rather scientific interests of researchers themselves. In the case of Riga Polytechnic Institute (RPI) though they to a large extent were connected with the technical modernization of Riga and Baltic provinces. However, in history of sciences RPI has left traces through achievements in basic sciences – W. Ostwald and P. Walden – in mathematics, A. Toepler – in physics. The achievements were mental expressions of individual scientists.

            In 1919, the University of Latvia was established on the basis of RPI. In 1923, the Parliament (Saeima) with the force of law passed its Constitution (Satversme). It said: “the University of Latvia is the supreme institution of science and education in the country. Its tasks include: promoting scientific research and spreading science in people, and training specialists with university education for the needs of Latvia… The language of instruction is Latvia. Subjects can be taught in other languages only in individual cases with a special permission granted by the University Council. The University is an autonomous institution, which, on the basis of its Constitution, independently develops its life and fulfils its tasks.” The university followed the principle proclaiming the unity of Latvian science and academic studies, and focused its work on studies and not so much on research.  A special research strategy was not developed. It was determined through the democratic choice of teaching staff.

            In the Republic of Latvia, a science strategy started developing after the establishment of Kārlis Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime in 1934. In line with the state approaches, priority was given to sciences, which were oriented towards the needs of Latvia, among these to mention agrarian sciences first (in 1939, the second institution of higher education was founded in Latvia – the Jelgava Academy of Agriculture), to investigation of natural resources and to those sciences, which proved the national identity: history of Latvia as national history, Latvian folklore, and ethnography (yet less to linguistics, and J. Endzelīns complained about it). A special scientific research fund was institutioned by the law of the Cabinet of Ministers at the University in 1935 and teaching staff was granted leaves for scientific studies. The first research institutions appeared outside the university: the Institute of History of Latvia (founded in 1936) and the Institute for the Investigation of Latvian Mineral Resources (founded in 1936/1939), as well as the Folklore Depository (1924), Language Depository (1935), Board of Monuments, and preliminary work was done to establish the academy of sciences. Science was not the top priority of the Republic. However, owing to the efforts of Professor of chemistry J. Auškāps, Minister of Education, it received due attention both within the UL and outside it, care was taken, for example, to purchase complicate equipment for research in physical chemistry and physics ( X-ray equipment, spectroscopes). There were 5 scientists (2 specialists of agriculture, 2 philologists and a historian) from among 23 Motherland’s  Prize (Tēvzemes balva) winners – their fields indirectly showed the national priorities of the authoritarian Ulmanis’s state. Latvian scientific terminology was developed, noteworthy results were achieved in developing not only a national, but also a European university. One cannot deny a certain confrontation with Baltic Germans, who had previously represented science in Riga (in 1935, Professor of history L. Arbusow had to leave his position at UL), a conflict with Estonia was brought about grounded on the Liiv studies, when Professor O. Loorits, a specialist of the branch was not let into Latvia (to put it more correctly, he was expelled from Riga). Yet in general a normal, sufficiently democratic science system was developing that matched the needs of a small country, and well educated Latvian scientific intellectuals grew up. Since 1935, also the Baltic intellectual cooperation in university life, science and culture started developing.

            World War II was marked with Umsiedlung of Baltic German academic staff and then exile of numerous (~400) Latvian university professors in 1944/45. Previously the country had already seen the Bolshevik and Nazi terror, and deportations. Emigration of scientists seems to have affected Latvia to a larger extent than Lithuania and Estonia.

            Under Soviet occupation, science, adapted to the conditions of a small country, was re-structured in a component of science in the superpower – totalitarian Soviet Empire. The Academy of Sciences of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, founded in 1946, with its many institutes became a leading science centre. At the universities research went on the decline. In the beginning, the Academy of Sciences too was oriented towards the needs of Latvia. Yet starting with 1960s, it more and more came forward to the All-Union arena. This had both positive and negative sides. Among the advantages one can mention rapid increase in science funding and the number of scientists, as well as the development of enormous (with up to 1000 people) research institutes. Yet the main advantage was that there appeared advanced science branches, which were not represented here earlier or still existed in embryo (the advanced organic and biochemical chemistry, solid state physics, mechanics of composite and polymer materials, magnetohydrodynamics, molecular biology, computer techniques, etc.). For the young Latvian intellectuals science was attractive, well paid “internal emigration”. The prestige of science in public sharply increased (the opinion poll of 1965 indicated that profession of a researcher in natural sciences was in the 6th place, but according to the poll of 1990 – even in the 5th place – after medics, lawyers, clergymen and university professors). Connection with military industrial complex, promotion of the USSR rocket-building and space technologies for military needs (although it provided funding for the development of science in Latvia and intellectual growth of scientists), connection with  large Soviet agencies, which opposed economic independence of Latvia (“globalisation within the USSR”), domination of communist-Stalinist concepts over the humanities, and the loss of national identity were the downsides. It should be admitted though that under the conditions of the USSR, Latvia saw practically no brain-drain to the large centres of the USSR (Moscow, Leningrad and Siberia). It’s true though that a group of chemists – non-Latvians joined M. Voronkov and moved to Irkutsk, Latvia’s biologists also studied hydrobiology for the reversal of Siberian rivers and participated in many significant projects of the USSR. Riga became a venue for many All-Union and international congresses, including the 7th International IUPAC Symposium on Chemistry of Natural Compounds with 1800 participants (900 foreigners, including 5 Nobel Prize winners) and the report by H. G. Khorana, which announced the synthesis of an artificial gene for the first time. The following dynamics characterizes the increase in the numbers of scientists: 50 – in 1913, 1129- in 1940, and 17700 – in 1990.

            There was not a special science strategy in Soviet Latvia. Science was developing as a nameless component of single “Soviet science” there, yet priority doubtlessly belonged to natural and exact sciences. The above sciences received the best funding (in 1987, the budget of the Academy of Sciences of the Latvian SSR was ~27 million roubles).

            The talk about Latvian science strategy became louder in 1988-89, on the wave of renewing independence. Principles for financing science changed (transition to the grant system), research gradually moved from the institutes of the academy to universities. Administration of science became to a certain extent more democratic. The Academy of Sciences was transformed into an elite association of individual members, and "liberated" itself from the large institutes. The processes took similar course also in Estonia and Lithuania. Priorities of science changed; greater attention was paid to regional sciences and humanitarian branches (Latvian studies). However, we succeeded in saving also basic research fields in natural and exact sciences, which had already become traditional for Latvia.

            Scientists were rather active in the processes of the "Third Awakening" and much expected from the new times, from the regained independence. However, disappointment met them just with respect the development of scientific research. Here the already known things have to be reminded: the dramatic fall in funding and in the number of scientists, young people moving away to other spheres of life or going abroad, and ageing of scientists. The fall was very fast in 1992-1994, in 1995 we as if managed to recover. However, the following bank crisis shattered hopes for the increase in funding. The year 1995 saw the beginning of the "positional warfare" for the survival of science in Latvia.

            The government is reproaching scientists that in Latvia science has alienated itself from public needs, and that it lives and works per se. It is true that the 100% grant system, which was initially introduced in Latvia, "atomised" science although allowed to preserve the strongest fields (publications count in international journals  (Science Citation Index List) has not fallen at threefold decrease in the number of scientists), and actually destroyed the infrastructure of institutes. Integration of institutes within the University of Latvia was formal. Research was not linked with the training of students (except for individual cases). Yet the local national economy offered no demand for science. In 2000, the GDP of Latvia had reached 62% of that in 1990, yet trade and transport branches have seen sharp and constant development, but Latvian production - agriculture and industry are still witnessing stagnation. Industrial output has reached only 40% of its level in 2000, but agriculture - 47%, besides in industry (in the privatised one!) labour productivity has fallen by 17% of the level in 1990, since the orientation towards primitive timber production is going on. High tech products comprise 0.5% of the total production (although they provide 6.5% of export). Hence stagnation in science is connected with stagnation in production, with inability to re-orientate ourselves to medium-size and small enterprises and poor privatisation scenario. Even a successful pharmaceutical enterprise such as "Grindex" that has grown up due to local science, has lost its position in a local market: its share comprises only 3.5% (2000) there, although a little of the original anticancer drug ftorafur is still being exported even to Japan. The state has failed in cultivating successful business environment and in creating preconditions for the development of innovative science - that is the sad conclusion to be drawn. The state feels no necessity for science, therefore from among the candidate states of EU Latvia is the last but one as to the funding of science and the number of scientists, in one case - before Cyprus, in another - before Romania.

            The loss of the so-called industrial science is one but possibly the greatest loss. Before 1990, it was traditional for Latvia and functioned both within academic institutes and within separate research institutes and design offices of branches. The international evaluation of science carried out by the Danish Research Councils  (1992), attitude of the Council of Ministers then (influence of several politicians from the Popular Front, who wanted to get free from giants of industry and masses of migrants in Latvia), and the initial policy of the Latvian Council of Science actually ignored the field, which could somehow be transformed. Scientific research basis of the VEF factory was damaged (to a great extent owing to the recommendations of the competitive foreign firms), the institute for design of electric fast trains moved to the neighbourhood of Moscow, etc. There was an enormous complex of marine geology, and investigation (secret) of Latvian territory was carried out. Only several centres of high technologies have survived up to now:

            1) joint stock company Sidrabe - design of vacuum surfaces (belongs to the capital of the USA);
            2) Baltic Scientific Instruments - a small part of the large Institute of Radio Isotopes (Ge crystals for the detection of radioactive materials) (Finnish capital);
            3) individual limited liability companies within the Technological Centre.

            Until 1990, 1000 author's certificates were annually filed in Latvia, now - 100 LV patents. This field of practical sciences saw the main decline. Now the analysis of the sphere is being made in Latvia and the revival of R&D is being considered in form of small and medium-size enterprises. It should be added that previously the sphere took the major part of the R&D budget, which comprised 1.6% of GDP in Latvia.

            Yet not only the state is to be blamed, we ourselves are to be reproached, too. Looking back into traditions of science, where the University of Latvia had a lesser place than Tartu and Vilnius Universities, we see that the Academy of Sciences had played a dominating role. It should be admitted that scientists too had not done everything they could. Recent years though have witnessed several important moments - 1) since 1996, national programmes have been established (in the beginning, there were 5 of them, now there are 25) to develop separate research fields needed for Latvia, for example, in materials sciences; 2) Latvian scientists have actively joined structural programmes of the EU and NATO (and Latvia earns more than it pays, e.g., within the EU 5th framework programme), Institute of Solid State Physics has become a center of excellence of EU, Biomedical Center - a center of excellence of UNESCO; 3) in 1998, the Cabinet of Ministers has accepted the national concept for science development elaborated by the Latvian Council of Science and the Latvian Academy of Sciences, it should be added though that funding was not allocated for it; 4) at the largest universities, positive processes, though in embryo, became visible in research, the number of doctoral students is growing; 5) traditional journals continue being published (also in cooperation with Russia), increasing number of new journals in the humanities start appearing, although the policy of journals is not coordinated; 6) non-budget support for science is growing (in case of the Academy of Sciences, for instance, - 8 prizes from the side of different corporations; 7) a network of technology parks starts developing in embryo; 8) studies in social sciences see increasing support from different international organisations that far exceeds their budgetary funding; 9) science is regaining its prestige in public (TV, journal "Terra").

            The positive tendencies are gradually strengthening the position of science in Latvia regardless of the insulting ignorance by the political elite.

            Quite recently a group of governmental experts assessed national priorities for 2002 - 2006, and from among 17 fields the following were acknowledged as the most important ones: 1) state support for domestic entrepreneurship; 2) development of infrastructure in regions; and 3) regulation of judicial system. Integration of university education - science - innovations remained in the 4th place, and health care - in the 5th place. It shows that there is no hope for radical increase in funding, yet a certain support could be expected from the Government.

            In Latvia, the main "struggles" are currently those for the regulation of funding for higher education (according to the Bologna Declaration) and for the state support to innovations, including the high technologies - information technology being the first. It is true that both of the spheres include also elements of research, yet they are not the dominating ones (the submitted documents speak about the regulation of salaries for academic staff and about the resources meant to attract the young scientific personnel, doctoral students, to have 2000 vacancies for doctoral students and 300 defences of doctoral theses annually).

            The design of a strategy for R&D in the Republic of Latvia has been simultaneously started to submit the document to the parliament this autumn. The strategy is based on the concept of 1998 its key theses being still effective.

            The strategy defines main tasks for science in Latvia (to create a knowledge-based country), main organisational structures (research centres at universities, national science centers in priority fields, state supported technology centers and knowledge intensive firms), priorities for the development of science fields (information technology, materials sciences; forest and wood-pulp; organic synthesis, biotechnology, and lettonics (Latvian studies), principles for science formation (grants, a limited number of state-funded scientific programmes, funding for infrastructure allocated to individual research institutions, orders placed by state institutions and market-oriented research), and renewal and strengthening of scientific personnel. The basic aim of the document is to achieve the increase in national budgetary allocation for science until the year 2010, no less than by 0.1% of the GDP annually so that it attains 1% of Latvia's GDP in the year 2007-2008.

            At the same time, the commission of the strategy came to the conclusion that an abstract document, with figures and columns alone, will seem inexpressive to the Government and Saeima and will possibly be ignored. It is planned to supplement it with an appendix containing quite concrete, seemingly insignificant proposals - on how to regulate the legal status of former academic institutes and property rights to buildings given in their jurisdiction, on how to give the High Building in possession of the Academy of Sciences, how to draft a special "Law on the University of Latvia" (taking into consideration that nearly all former institutes of the Academy of Sciences are currently functioning within the university), what could a scenario be for the development of previous academic towns in Teika, Salaspils and Kleisti, what shape technology centers will take, etc.

            With reference to general tendencies in the development of research one may admit that in the single EU research area Latvia's science could not become as versatile and strong as it was in the single science area of the USSR. It is hardly possible that Latvia will financially manage to raise all so far supported science fields up to the world level for them to attract all young talents. Latvia is not able to give adequate rise to the defined 5 science priorities, too, as actually the priorities entail nearly all Latvia's present science potential.

            Apparently, Latvia won't still long be able to maintain a high level for university education in all natural, engineering and social sciences. The gifted ones will go to study abroad anyway.

            However, good university education tied with science has to be developed in the branches, where we are able to do it, where initiative has become visible. The former institutes have to be maintained as a firm ground for young talented people, who could work abroad a part of the time and periodically return home. Science cannot be planned. Mainly chances determine development here, occurrence of one or another strong talent. Had not W. Ostwald come to Riga in late 1881, strong traditions in chemistry had not developed there. Yet such a talent can appear in more or less prepared environment - had not G. Kieseritzky, Director of Riga Polytechnicum, been sufficiently wise to listen to the suggestion of Tartu Professor K. Schmidt, Ostwald had not got a position in Riga. Aside from invented, as if dictated by logics priority fields, science strategy shall, therefore, include also - support to very successful fields of science, which have unexpectedly appeared and received high international recognition. On the other hand, development of branches, which may provide the country with innovative technologies. Not always these accomplishments will be local products, and several local accomplishments, in their turn, will find their application abroad (W. Zapp's example with "Minox" camera at the VEF factory!). Yet constant sufficiently high general level is necessary for science. In Latvia, science is doubtlessly becoming more practical and smaller, yet its link with society and life ensures science understanding and support.


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