Tuul Sepp: Estonia is the perfect place for doing science

Tuul Sepp. Author/source: ERR
Tuul Sepp. Author/source: ERR

Animal ecologist and prolific science populariser Tuul Sepp thinks that facts and the application of the scientific method should be the basis for helping shape life in Estonia during the next 100 years.

Animal ecologist and prolific science populariser Tuul Sepp told the publication Sirp that science should transcend nations, languages and borders. This also applies to the humanities. Sepp has been a postdoctoral student at the Arizona State University with a Marie Curie individual fellowship for almost two years and has published hundreds of science-popularising articles in the Estonian press interpreting human behaviour from an evolutionary perspective.

Sepp says that being away has helped her to evaluate the pros and cons of local life better. In her opinion, the problem with the worldview of many Americans is its narrowness in scope. While young scientists of Estonia, and Europe in general, often spend several semesters studying in a foreign country during their doctoral studies (or even earlier), and generally do their postdoctoral studies at a university in another country, Americans rarely leave the research area of the USA.

Supporting postdoctoral students would advance science

In Sepp’s estimation, Estonian science is in a state where, with the help of European funding, the laboratories are full of cutting-edge technology that mostly sits idle while scientists are being dismissed. Now is the time we have the potential to perform high-level research relatively cheaply, as we possess the equipment and the knowledge in the form of top researchers. This potential is, however, only usable within a relatively narrow timeframe as technology and methods age rapidly. According to Sepp, the state has a lot to gain if we actually – and not only theoretically – prioritise research within the next five years.

Sepp sees one possible solution in postdoctoral students: a large number of several-year postdoctoral fellowships should be offered in the next five years. This would allow us to exploit the potential the laboratories offer but wouldn’t oblige the state to keep these researchers on a payroll for a long period of time. Postdoctoral students are one of the most productive and innovative groups of people in research.

The fellowships could be open to emerging scientists from Estonia as well as from abroad. When these young scientists have lived in Estonia for a couple of years, they will see how comfortable it is to do research and to start a family here. “Right now, people from outside of Estonia have no idea how good it is to do research in Estonia. We should offer these kinds of introductory “cruises” to as many young smart people as possible, not to mention the possibility of retaining or attracting back our own talent,” explained Sepp.

Science isn’t dependent on nationality

Sepp believes that science not only transcends nations but also languages and borders. This is easier to understand with regard to physical and biological sciences, but it also extends to humanities. It is important to study our own language and history, our own rocks and our indigenous animals. But if we don’t collate local knowledge and discoveries with findings from other places, if we don’t put it into a global context or enable the international research community to access it, we are the ones losing out, as well as the entire world of science, explained Sepp.

An inevitable conclusion from this is that science must be written down in a language that is internationally understood. This doesn’t mean that Estonian terminology isn’t important. Estonian terminology is necessary for us to be able to speak and write about our work in such a way that it can be understood by people from other specialities. This is important not only for popularising science but also for promoting inter-disciplinary cooperation in science.

Evolution provides insights into why people act in characteristic ways

All characteristics of humans have developed through evolution as a result of natural selection, as this is the only process that forms living organisms. It is the inevitable law of nature. Behaviour, however, is also one of the characteristics of living beings that, like all other characteristics, develops through the combined influence of genetics and environment.

Sepp finds understanding the evolutionary background of the behavioural features of humans to be very useful. If we can understand which innate instincts influence our behaviour, it is also easier to assess the relevance of these instincts in a specific situation. She explained that if, for example, the xenophobia of a local population originates from a need to prevent contamination with foreign parasites, then we can see that this might no longer be appropriate in contemporary society.

In her articles, Sepp has tried to apply the evolutionary point of view for understanding human behaviour while not justifying it. Rather, Sepp hopes that her articles will help us overcome any inappropriate behaviour. So far, she has not received much criticism for these opinions.

Science popularisation and scientific thinking in Estonia

Sepp is convinced that scientists must make their work accessible to society at large. Firstly, science is funded by the public and people demand to know what their money is being used for. Secondly, the better scientists do in explaining their work, the better the public understands why investments in science are necessary.

With a scientific approach it is possible to offer solutions to a very wide range of problems, especially when scientists from various fields cooperate. The prerequisite for this is that they rely on knowledge and facts and not on hunches or their own subjective worldviews.

You don’t have to be a scientist to understand the scientific method and to realise that decisions should be made based on the best available knowledge. Scientific thinking is accompanied by the understanding that nothing is absolutely valid and irrefutable, and it must be possible to dismiss outdated perceptions with the accumulation of new knowledge. The small size of Estonia provides an ideal opportunity for applying this dynamic principle.

Angela Merkel recently said that the natural resource of the 21st  century is data. The ability to discern patterns in the abundance and disarray of data and to pick out knowledge necessary for humanity will probably be one of the most valued and necessary skills in the future, said Sepp. In her opinion, in the future, scientists will increasingly have to deal with processing and analysing data, and even though gathering new data will still be important, its role in scientific work will probably grow smaller and smaller.

The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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