From Speech Recognition to Dark Matter—7 Years of Excellence as 12 Research Centres Complete Their Work

Centre for Integrated Electronic Systems and Biomedical Engineering (CEBE) has worked on prototype of diagnosing depression by analyzing brain signals which is being tested on patients already.  Photo by CEBE
Centre for Integrated Electronic Systems and Biomedical Engineering (CEBE) has worked on prototype of diagnosing depression by analyzing brain signals which is being tested on patients already. Photo by CEBE

As new Centres of Excellence in Research will be announced soon, we look back to 12 previous centres’ work.

This year 12 centres of excellence in research will end their activity in Estonia as 9 new ones will be announced in the coming weeks. These centres are meant to unite several research groups internationally recognised in their field of research, and to improve the quality and efficiency of research through facilitating cooperation between research groups. As centres receive support from the European Regional Development Fund they operate in line with the funding periods, the previous ones being 2007–2015 and 2011–2015. For this very reason the current centres will be closed this year.

However, this does not mean ending research in these fields altogether according to Ms. Galina Varlamova, assistant secretary general of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. Instead, several scientists from previous centres might continue in new ones or combine their work with new research teams. “But it is still difficult to say more at the time being, as decisions about new centres are still to be announced. However, nine of them will be created instead of the initially planned eight, which means there must be a great number of noteworthy proposals,” Varlamova adds.

When asked about the highlights of the past seven years and the activities of the centres, Varlamova starts to laugh and responds with a question instead: “It’s impossible to answer this, it is like comparing apples and oranges. How can one compare research conducted on dark matter to computer science?” All the centres have some great accomplishments and discoveries, she notes. “Some of these are more fundamental, like in nonlinear studies, some more practical like in other fields such as genomic studies and computer science.”

Varlamova’s struggle in choosing top results can be understood because scientists are faced with the same problem as well. It is not easy to summarize more than 1,400 publications, let alone various doctoral theses, patents, participations in international projects etc. in just a few lines according to Professor Tarmo Uustalu from the Centre of Excellence in Computer Science. Still, when asked about keynotes, he mentions the work of researchers at the Tallinn University of Technology Institute of Cybernetics, whose work on programming with dependent types and effects has been certified worldwide and affected the design of new-generation programming languages. What is more, their secure computation software Sharemind is pioneering in its field and has received funding from DARPA itself. Their various other works deal with speech recognition, software for biological data, privacy issues and include various business software solutions.

Revolutionary ideas are also characteristic of the Centre for Integrated Electronic Systems and Biomedical Engineering (CEBE) whose prototype of diagnosing depression by analysing brain signals is already being tested on patients. This is only one of the many interesting achievements in medical engineering. The research by the Centre of Excellence for Translational Medicine that ranges from cancer biology to psychiatry is also worth highlighting. A good example is research by Professor Pärt Peterson’s research group, which showed that patients suffering from APECED (a genetic disease) have developed autoantibodies against certain parts of a Candida albicanis infection, and this could lead to losing immunity to Candida albicanis in general.

The discoveries mentioned above are, naturally, only a fraction of the work done by the 12 centres over the years. As new centres will be announced in the coming weeks we asked Varlamova how well has the model of centres worked, whether it has changed over the years and whether there is any room for improvements. She notes that, generally speaking, there is no need for changes as centres have accomplished astonishing results within the years. Yet, if she—or several other scientists we talked to—could change one thing in connection to the centres, it would be reducing the overwhelming amount of bureaucracy. “Of course bureaucracy is inevitable when it comes to research funding but if we could reduce it even a little bit, we could save so much money and resources,” Varlamova explains.

Nevertheless, bureaucracy is not the biggest concern for the Estonian scientists and Academy of Science. Funding is, as may be expected. Estonia is suffering from the lack of cooperation between private industries and research centres, thus, private funding is scarce. While government funding is also small, Estonian research has been mostly relying on temporary project-based funding that ends upon a project’s deadline. This is a significant problem yet to be solved. “But it is not only about the money,” Varlamova says, “It also affects the way young scientists think about science, their thinking becomes project-based. They are stuck with a single idea and concept, and forget the big picture behind it.” Uustalu adds that this also makes long-term planning difficult for researchers.

* The following 12 centres of excellence will be closed in 2015: Frontiers in Biodiversity Research; High-Technology Materials for Sustainable Development; Centre of Excellence for Translational Medicine; Centre of Excellence in Chemical Biology; Centre for Integrated Electronic Systems and Biomedical Engineering; Centre for Nonlinear StudiesCentre of Excellence in Environmental Adaptation; Theory and Applications of Mesosystems; Dark Matter in (Astro)particle Physics and Cosmology, Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory; Centre of Excellence in Computer Science; Centre of Excellence in Genomics.

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.