Dear Ladies and gentlemen,
First off, I think that by launching a comprehensive research programme on how to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 early last spring government made a great decision. We can now see the returns, and they are good. And we are about to learn more about some of them, i.e., the ones that concern social and human sciences, which form only a fraction of the whole programme. Today, we will have an opportunity to engage in a debate on these projects and their outcomes.
Countless hours and hard work have gone into the effort. Recommendations contain scenarios for development of whole sectors and good suggestions helping policy-makers, government employees and business owners improve their management and governance practices, productivity and international competitiveness.
More than ever before, this crisis has clearly shown that political decisions informed by science can be decisive . We also realised how difficult it is to see the way forward without necessary data and prior knowledge about a certain phenomenon.
I am confident that this research programme, which specifically addresses the impact and consequences of this crisis, will help us all recover more smoothly.
Today, I want to revisit an idea I presented a while ago - national research policy is instrumental for the national development. More investments into research equal stronger national development, economic growth and population prosperity.
And, by ‘prosperity’ I mean the same as what the Preamble of Satversme and many other international and European Union documents say, i.e., prosperity includes financial well-being and success, or spiritual and non-financial well-being.
Consequently, knowledge, in a broad sense, is one of the features of non-financial well-being. Human anthropology pushes us to crave for more knowledge and understanding of the world. Knowledge is a value in itself. The more developed we are as a society, the more we value the knowledge as such, while its financial benefits, or the advantages that it gives us, are a welcome bonus.
As a discipline, science is designed to generate knowledge. Science is a long, complicated process – and its outcomes are not always readily applicable, but that does not diminish the importance of it. Let me underline – we should be looking at the social value of science from a broader perspective. From a perspective that sees the world more completely and, in many cases, also yields very concrete financial gains and economic benefits.
Here are the research policy implications of this approach. Research policy in a developed society supports balanced development of fundamental and applied research. It strives for equal distribution between natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Science policy and funding programmes should not overlook social sciences and humanities.
Let me emphasize – from a social perspective, especially in a developed society, science works towards much greater goals than immediate material outcomes. Although we often hear this simplified view of social and human sciences as a money pit, for a developed society this would seem wrong and unjust.
Science is about taking a stab in the dark, going for the unknown. It often involves a lot of risk-taking. We would not need science if we knew what we are getting each time we go for something. Science can lead to immediate material or other outcomes, and it can also end in no result. But this ‘no result’ can, for example, much later become evidence of something else, something we did not foresee. Anyway, science makes our life much more complete, bringing society to a new level of development and making humans more stronger all-round. There are no exceptions. This applies to all science.
Moreover, modern economy cannot go forward without research. Science drives the competitiveness of the economy.
Here is how different links in the cycle of prosperity successively lead towards success: 1) education (general, vocational, higher); 2) science (research which leads to new knowledge); 3) innovation (economic application of innovations); 4) economy; 5) prosperity (in the broadest possible sense).
Education, science, technology and economic policies of a state should reinforce each other and bring the cycle of prosperity in motion, thus creating preconditions for seamless operation of all these processes, minimising losses and maximising gains. As a result, we will move towards greater material and non-material wealth.
Science starts at schools and goes all the way up to universities and research institutes. It is important to encourage young, talented and curious people to choose career in science. Latvia boasts many world-class researchers. However, unless we take care of the new generation of scientists, we will not be able to enhance or sustain such excellence. We also need businesses who understand how science works and how innovations can change their business and the economy.
We need to boost the international competitiveness of Latvian universities and bring in a new generation of professors, including brining in more researchers from abroad in the key strategic research areas.
As I have already said on a number of occasions, research needs more funding. Our future depends on it. Any scientific breakthrough is victory for our country and people.
I highly welcome the decision of our government to make Latvia a member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and, more recently, join the European Space Agency. For Latvian companies, this is a wonderful opportunity to develop and start producing new and innovative products.
It must, however, be noted that baseline funding for research is still unacceptably low, many strategic fields and research ideas are lack funding, while Latvia misses out on good projects. Now that we have been hit by crisis and public health, and maybe even the survival of the nation, is in the hands of scientists, we need to muster the political will and start allocating also adequate baseline funding. If baseline funding barely covers the infrastructure costs, as is the case with many beneficiaries, we are forcing our scientists to jump from project to project and, in fact, loosing much of the intellectual power and potential knowledge. This does not help the development of science.
Part of the funding should be spent on planned research to generate the critical mass, which can then be utilised further. Especially in social and human sciences. The other part of funding should be spent on specific projects. There should be a healthy balance between baseline and project funding.
According to National Productivity Report 2020, uptake of modern technologies is rather slow in Latvia, which leads to low skills level in the society. Our people lack knowledge and skills, whereas low investment into research and development prevent companies from innovating and becoming part of international supply chains more successfully.
We need to break the vicious cycle and start investing more smartly, especially in people and their skills, because without them better competitiveness and productivity will remain a mere government slogan.
I believe that knowledge creation, transfer to the society and economy, as well as achieving greater efficiency of such transfer, are ingredients of an adequate national policy on science.
Science and its quality should be left to researchers, and public sector should create an ecosystem for that. Such ecosystem would allow scientists to convert their ideas into reality, bring in more money, while general public would see the scientific achievements and support their commercialisation.
There would be no need for researchers to deal with all the paperwork, accounting and publicity as that would be taken care of by those who have the right skills and knowledge for the job. Scientists are currently buried underneath piles of papers and are often suspected and checked for all sorts of irregularities. That is not the kind of dignity one would expect, given their job, and it also leads to waste of their potential. The system and attitude must change.
Government units should take a critical look at how they see science, its social role and research-based innovation transfer to economy. This should allow them to formulate much clearer and more attainable science goals, instead of creating additional administrative barriers.
These general principles apply also to social sciences and humanities. In addition to other benefits, these disciplines can also enhance the knowledge resources of public sector and support smarter policies. There are several horizontal policies in dire need of scientific backing, for example, digital and employment policy.
It is crucial to identify the weaknesses and strengths of our society and policies to better understand in which scientific disciplines we should invest more and what the expectations should be.
In conclusion, I want to emphasise that one way to look at COVID-19 pandemic is to treat it as an example of how quickly the world can change and how closely intertwined we all are. Climate change and nature imbalances that we have created are the biggest threats of mankind. We will have to tend to these challenges for many decades to come.
That is why Latvia needs to start to proactively identify strategic sectors and segments of the economy – we must know where science and other resources need to be applied to move these areas forward. And the field is wide. From energy to agriculture and transport. We must find ways to reduce the CO2 emissions generated by these sectors, make them switch to circular economy and find balance between modern economy of Latvia and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.
I would like to use this opportunity to remind you that we need to remove administrative barriers that prevent state and municipal enterprises from taking a more active role in national science and research ecosystem. Our science needs this valuable asset.
Albert Einstein once said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’.
Current vision offered by the government to the society can be improved. This specifically applies to projects funded from European Recovery and Resilience Facility. European Commission has already voiced its criticism to Latvia. Our projects are not future-oriented enough. Something we need to work on, but I hope researchers will actively help us make these plans right.
If we want to achieve an economic breakthrough and greater prosperity, we will have to think differently and roll up our sleeves.
Several line ministries have already endorsed research ideas and proposals discussed in the public domain as potential projects for mitigating the impact of COVID-19. I cannot speak about all project proposals, but from legal point of view most of them seem more than acceptable and we must now find ways to bring these projects about.
I must say a big thank you to Latvian researchers who quickly joined this national research programme and produced really impactful results that society can now use for its benefit.
Lastly, I want to thank all residents of Latvia who support and follow scientific processes and developments, and thus make our society more inquisitive and open to new inventions.
I would like to conclude by quoting American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose quote still resonates with many modern scientists: ‘The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.’
Have an interesting and stimulating discussion on project outcomes presented today. Thank you!