On February 19th, 2021, the Board of the Tallinn University of Technology approved the university's strategic plan for the years 2021-2025.The Vice Rector for Research thus gives an overview of the concrete steps that have already been taken in her area of responsibility and outlines what is planned to reach the goals formulated in the strategic plan.
Last year, the whole university family contributed to the new strategic plan. The unprecedented broad-based involvement ultimately produced an excellent result, but it was also an important lesson that listening to all opinions, arguing in a reasoned manner and seeking common ground is a long process and requires a high-performance organisational culture.
One thing is to create visions and build strategies, but implementing them is quite another. For this purpose, organisations usually have an implementation plan (or an action plan) to accompany the development plan. The former sets out the concrete actions to achieve results. The University of Technology's implementation plan, and how it relates to the strategic plan, can be found at smart.taltech.ee. It also breaks down the research activities into separate projects of the implementation plan, each with associated funding sources and main promoters. If reading and following the development plan seems boring and bureaucratic, it is worth repeating that I will continue to base all my activities on the three main objectives: the quality of research, the next generation of scientists and the initiative of researchers.
In order to raise the quality of research to the level of the leading European universities of technology, we have agreed on the quality criteria: we will start counting publications from the top 25% of journals. Of course, we cannot expect a surge in publishing in top journals in the first year, but it is a start: people are becoming aware of how the quality of publications is evaluated, finding out what the top journals are, and trying to get their articles into the better journals. To calculate the performance indicator, we use the SCOPUS database and the SciVal tool, which is available to all researchers at the university and takes into account the structure of the university. I encourage everyone to get to know this tool and to ask for guidance from the Research Administration Office if necessary.
As a university, it is important that we provide students with research-based learning and research-based mindsets. The committee responsible for assessing tenure professors, which also includes Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs, also considers that professors should be equally engaged in teaching as they are in research and in contributing to the society. The Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs is also working on having researchers teaching in all study programmes.
Hereby, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the members of the tenure attestation committees. I am very grateful that top scientists dedicate their time to giving feedback on the work of their colleagues. They do not only criticise but also support and give advice on how to do better or more effectively. The peer review process is also a place for sharing best practices. In cross-faculty attestations we can see and compare how professors work and what methods they use. We will certainly put emphasis on how much a tenured professor teaches. It seems to me that, so far, there has been insufficient attention to ensuring that teaching, research and service to society are balanced in the work of the professors.
This year, the academic career structure has also been changed. The main innovation is the introduction of the positions of Teaching Track Associate Professor and Assistant Professor. The former is intended for outstanding and valued lecturers who deliver research-based teaching and who have, among other things, proven their ability to lead doctoral students to degree defending. I suggested the post of asstant professor to be introduced into the career structure. Its aim is to provide a long-term career path for young researchers with very high potential. We have to acknowledge that the communication of the new career structure at the university has not gone well. Various interpretations of the requirements for these posts have been offered by the applicants themselves, as well as by the various levels of management and by the Human Resources Department. It has caused much frustration among the applicants. I can assure you that the university's management appreciates and is willing to support anyone who has the track record, ambition and capacity to make a major contribution to the future development of the university, but it is also important to respect the quality standards that we have jointly established. In the case of an teaching track associate professor, it is essential that the requirements for publication and successful supervision of doctoral students are met. Candidates for assistant professorships should be outstanding researchers with high potential and international experience.
Research funding is an important issue from several aspects. It is also the responsibility of the research group leader to secure sustainable funding for their group. Unfortunately, we often see that money and also the time of talented researchers are wasted on administrative activities. I believe that a researcher's time is too valuable to be spent on project administration or financial reporting. The head of the research department and I have been working to raise awareness of this problem in the institutes - a professional project administrator works faster and more efficiently than a researcher overburdened with other tasks, and has knowledge and experience that can be used in many research groups.
In the implementation plan there is a specific action: dissemination of best practices. Indeed, I have highlighted this because the lack of coherence in the university is a big problem: there is no spreading of the best practices. For instance, some good practices on how to apply for grants, supervise PhD students, manage your own research group, etc. may have been in use for years in a successful research group, but are not noticed and followed. We have also started mentoring programmes to promote best practices. The first one is for female leaders and was launched in November. In the next round, we plan to target young researchers and build mentoring capacity within the university, so that in the future it becomes a normal part of academic life and a self-regenerating solution.
Collaboration between faculties on university focus themes would also contribute to the dissemination of best practices. From time to time, I have been asked whether the focus areas were the pursuit of the previous administration and that we have now forgotten about them. The answer is no, the focus areas are generally well chosen and reflect the strengths and ambitions of our university. I am convinced that it makes sense for such a small and resource-constrained university to concentrate on a few keywords that make it stand out in the world. It is simply that, as a result of lack of time I have not been able to redefine, refine and enforce this area. For now, I am engaged in a broader analysis to map the areas of competence of our tenured professors, linking them to curricula, focus themes and areas of smart specialisation. This analysis should also be basis for informed decisions on tenures and curricula.
I have also not yet had the chance to map the research infrastructure. However, this is an important activity, among other things also to save money. There is no point in buying 2-3 identical pieces of equipment for several faculties or institutes, we have to find a way to share, but to do this we first have to map the existing research equipment. If we can find such savings, we will again contribute to the spirit of collaboration and the spread of best practice: we will also have more opportunities then to acquire new equipment.
The scientific infrastructure also includes the TalTech´s High Performance Computing Centre (HPC Centre) and a scientific data repository. The competence and responsibility for scientific data management lies with the Library, but is closely linked to HPC Centre. The Library advises on substantive matters related to the scientific data management and the Centre provides a data repository and large-scale computing capabilities.
The new Ethics Committee, twice as broad as the former one and with wider competences, will also contribute to improving the quality of research. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the members of the Ethics Committee, distinguished researchers and practitioners, for their time and effort. When standards of excellence are high and the future of a research career depends on it, the human temptation to cut corners is inevitable. The mission of the Ethics Committee is not only to advise researchers when things have gone wrong, but also to raise awareness of the research ethics issues so that problems can be prevented. We have to admit that there is room for improvement in these matters. It is not unprecedented that scientists (even the experienced ones) lack the ability to recognise the problems of professional ethics, such as conflicts of interest or influence peddling, and knowledge of authorship ethics and publishing ethics. However, we must be aware that it is up to us to raise awareness of these issues, and that following ethical standards in research universities must be self-evident.
The next generation of researchers
A new generation of scientists can be nurtured as early as in primary school (and it is impressive how many of our scientists are contributing to this), but the responsibility of the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs officially starts on the doctoral level. The future career choices and the success of doctoral students depend on how and with what results they spend their years of developing into researchers.
In order to improve the quality of doctoral studies, we are finalising a reform of doctoral curricula, resulting in 50% fewer doctoral programmes, 50% fewer credits per course and 50% fewer major specialisations. The structures of the curricula and majors are now simpler and clearer. Having fewer of them also means we can improve the quality of specialised courses. We will have less fragmented doctoral programmes with less volume, which will also help the spread of best practices: the 1-2 doctoral students in the smaller programmes often worked in isolation and did not have any exposure to other programmes.
All the new courses have been designed with a view to spreading best practices organically. For example, if an academic writing course is taught by five lecturers from different faculties, the doctoral students can compare different methods or approaches and find out what suits them best. All the general courses in doctoral studies are designed to allow doctoral students from different faculties to meet and interact with each other. It serves them as a place to interact, network and support each other. The Senate will soon decide on the new doctoral curricula.
In retrospect, I have to admit that the renewal of doctoral studies has been the most difficult task of my short mandate. It has been much more complicated than I imagined. I would like to thank all the people that we have finally managed to reach agreement on a fairly sensible structure for doctoral curricula. I can also fully understand the fears of losing 'my' curriculum, of reducing my teaching load, and, of the complexity of the task, which is expected to double the number of defences. I call on everyone to work together more, to think more, to show more initiative and to take more responsibility, as the major challenges in doctoral studies are still ahead. Next, we need to ensure that doctoral training is learner-centred, that it takes into account the doctoral candidate's own career needs, that all supervisors have the required scientific level and also the necessary social skills. The annual doctoral attestations cannot be bureaucratic formalities, but are there to provide doctoral candidates and their supervisors with valuable feedback every year.
We have also worked to reduce bureaucracy and increase clarity in order to improve the performance of doctoral studies: we have simplified the organisation of admissions and requirements for the doctoral theses, changed the attestation procedures in the study regulations and analysed the quality of general courses. We are also in the process of developing new general courses.
The next generation of researchers will also be supported by the creation of the grant fund for young researchers. The fund is in the final stage of setting up and aims to support young scientists for ten years after defending their doctorate. The position of a young researcher is the most vulnerable in the academia - they have not yet reached a tenure and have an insecure position. This period also coincides with starting a family and self-discovery. Certainly, older and more experienced researchers deserve support and help to manage their risks, as success in applying for a research grant is often a gamble. To this end, the tenure reform, which begun during the mandate of the previous rector, should first be completed.
The original idea of the tenure reform was that tenured professors would be surrounded by strong research groups, which would be funded directly to reduce uncertainty. During my mandate, I have been guided by the same principle: I believe it is important for all researchers to be part of strong research groups funded through tenure. The reform of the tenure system is far from being complete. Sometimes the head of a research group does not realise their responsibility for the funding of the research group. At times the research groups are only formal because 'the Research Administration Office said you have to belong somewhere', and sometimes the tenured professor does not actually get the money. I hope that in the next few years we will be able to organise our research activities better - we need fewer research groups, but with a critical mass and of good quality - because otherwise it is very difficult for a university to do good research and to provide the next generation of researchers.
This highlights a theme that runs through all of our research development goals: many right things were decided during the previous rector´s mandate, but they have simply not been implemented. For example, my predecessor set requirements for the supervisors and the salary levels for PhD students, but these requirements are not always met. We can make as many good rules as we like, but if we do not enforce them, new good rules are not the solution. Thus, during my mandate, I have been insisting the enforcement of the rules made by Renno Veinthal. It is not as prominent a job as a new development plan or a major project, it is the daily grunt work of a manager - rejecting theses or withdrawing supervisors if something does not meet the requirements - but it is still very necessary if we want to raise quality. Fortunately, we are beginning to understand that the rules and the quality standards we set are actually there to be met. There could be fewer rules, but they should also be followed, otherwise there is no point in having them at all.
My principle is to support those who support themselves. This principle is underpinned by the grant fund and the tenure reform, as well as by many smaller decisions. The Research Administration Office has under the mandate of the new Rector radically re-organised its work around the principle that researchers should, as much as possible, do their core work and they should be supported while doing so. The internal website of the Research Administration Office is now very clear about what to ask from whom, and the aim is that no matter what the researcher approaches us with, they will get support - be it help with writing or finding a grant, advice on project reporting, or something else. We have recruited three very good new grant writers, we are giving more advice on grant writing than before and in the future, we would like to put more emphasis on young researchers to help them start with grant writing. All this will increase competitive research funding and support researchers' own initiative.
But taking responsibility and initiative is not just about applying for funding. We have stated in our strategic plan that TalTech is the engine of the Estonian economy and as the only university of technology in Estonia, we should actively shape the society and the economic environment ourselves.
We are currently systematically engaged in policy making. In the spring, when the new government was formed, we compared the coalition agreement with the university's strategic plan. We have individually met all the ministers by now and analysed the points together where our strategic plan and the government's coalition agreement overlap, discussing where we can help the state to achieve its goals. The researchers have also participated in the meetings, so that they can come forward with their own ideas - in addition to promoting the value of researchers in the society, it has also contributed to networking within the university and again to spreading the best practices. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our researchers who have always responded to my request to contribute to our university. For my part, I have always tried to be as considerate and respectful as possible when using the time of the university´s academic family - involving the academic staff, but only when the purpose is clear and there is a real opportunity to increase the university´s impact.
Developing the Estonian-language research area is also one of our long-term goals. Last spring, we launched Estonian language courses for foreign doctoral students. We had to open two groups instead of one in the very first year because the interest was so high, the drop-out rate was very low and the satisfaction of the doctoral students was very high. We want the doctoral students to integrate better with Estonia. Articles and research papers are still written in English, because research is international, but the idea of the language training is to make sure that doctoral students who come to Estonia to do research stay here. To do that, they need to understand the society and feel comfortable here, and it is very difficult without the knowledge of the language.
Our colleagues have also been involved in the development of the Estonian technical language and terminology. One of the most recent bottom-up ideas proposes to have our own technical language professorship. This initiative is certainly worth considering and could also be linked to our research in the field of language technologies.
Valuing our language is closely linked to valuing our history. The history of technology in Estonia is very much the history of the University of Technology, and we should work to preserve it, to collect older memories from people who still remember, to pass on to future generations. A good example is the campus, which will be 60 years old in the spring. This campus was very innovative at the time: to build a campus somewhere outside the city 60 years ago, like the MIT, and say 'this is a university!'.
I do not see innovation and tradition as mutually exclusive, but rather as complementary approaches. I would like to conclude by once again thanking all my colleagues who have managed to combine these two qualities in their work. In my short time in office, I have experienced support for the implementation of various initiatives, and this certainly includes constructive and well-reasoned criticism. I hope to continue to experience an encouraging, supportive and proactive atmosphere.
The Strategic plan https://taltech.ee/en/about-the-university/strategic-plan, the projects, which are carried out to implement it smart.taltech.ee
High Performance Computing Centre: https://taltech.ee/en/itcollege/hpc-centre
Ethics Committee: https://taltech.ee/en/about-the-university/academic-ethics-committee