Paths of Baltic States’ public research funding 1989–2010: Between institutional heritage and internationalization

Europe of Knowledge |

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Teele Tõnismann

In my paper “Paths of Baltic States’ public research funding 1989–2010: Between institutional heritage and internationalization” (Tõnismann, 2018) I analyse transformations in public research funding of the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The paper is part of my PhD thesis where the topic is further explored with the example of research funding practices in the discipline of sociology.


Divergent impact of European Union politics in the Baltics

The paper focuses on the international competition in research funding policy. In research policy literature, competition is mostly seen to accompany “project-based” funding systems, which spread in the Western world since 1960 as a counter to so-called “institutional” or “basic” funding models. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, project-based funding systems were also established in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As with the other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, the EU accession is considered to have played significant roles in actualising these developments (Radosevic, Lepori, 2009). The overall transformation in these three countries encompassed the establishment of independent funding bodies, the introduction of project-based funding instruments, and the linking of institutional evaluation with research funding as was taking place in Western European countries.


However, against theoretical assumptions developed by neo-institutionalist authors (see below), these changes entailed significant differences. First, all three countries ended up with different shares of funding instruments. In a fashion similar to the ‘US system’, Estonia and Latvia rely mostly on project-based funding instruments while Lithuania’s public funding is built on a combination of core and project funding; this is typical of the ‘continental European funding systems’. Secondly, international dimensions of competitiveness in these systems occurred at various times: In Estonia before, in Latvia during, and in Lithuania after EU accession. Finally, policy changes gave different outputs, meaning that the research performances of the three Baltic States differ, with one country of the three—Estonia—surpassing the others. Consequently, the aim of this article was to better understand the factors that influenced the divergence in these three countries.


Limits of historical neo-institutionalism in explaining the impact of internationalisation

The Baltic case allows the discussion of works that have addressed similar questions using neo-institutional approaches. Although traditionally the external context is seen to have an impact on national institutional arrangements only through major ruptures or changes in an institutional environment, some recent historical neo-institutional authors have claimed this view. They claim that besides external factors, such as the restoration of national independence or accession to the EU, endogenous factors such as local political context and actors’ ability to interpret institutional rules play a crucial explanatory role in delineating the different change trajectories (Mahoney and Thelen, 2010).


In the article, I have applied the approach to the Baltics case and found that it raises at least two questions. First, if the political veto power could indeed explain the differences between the late Lithuanian reforms and those of its two northern neighbours, then how can we explain the Estonian reformers’ decision to move towards criteria favouring international competitiveness in a project-based funding system, while Latvian reformers did not? Secondly, if Latvian reform could be explained by political pressure coming from the EU, then how can we explain Lithuanian change agents’ motivation to delay change until 2009 even when political context would have allowed the change in the early 2000s? And although Latvia’s first changes were implemented in 2005, why has no substantial change occurred since?


These questions are showing the limits of the historical neo-institutionalism approach for understanding change in the Baltics. Instead, for a better understanding of the Baltic case, we drew on the works of recent historical neo-institutionalist authors and supplemented them with an analysis of change actors’ knowledge resources acquired from different international contexts.


Internationalisation as an endogenous factor of change?

In sum, the paper proposes the following hypothesis: to better understand the Baltic States’ divergent policy trajectories, internationalisation should be conceptualised as an endogenous factor of change, instead of perceiving it as an exogenous factor, as is theorised by historical institutionalist authors. The “endogenous” factor of change denotes here the “resource”  that change actors might engage for undertaking national policy reforms (Knoepfel et al. 2007) and that they have collected through their educational, professional, administrative, associative and political life trajectories.


Indeed, we found that the higher level of Western international knowledge resources with Estonian reform actors, compared to their Latvian counterparts at the beginning of the 1990s, and coupled with the political and institutional context, could explain the Estonian reformers’ decision to move towards integrating criteria favouring international competitiveness in a project-based funding system while Latvian reformers did not introduce these criteria. Similarly, a higher level of Western international knowledge resources with Lithuanian reformers compared to their Latvian counterparts can explain Lithuanian change actors’ motivation to undertake substantial changes in 2009 at the moment of national political change. At the same time, in Latvia, the changes were implemented incrementally and in a top-down method since 2005, as there has not been the emergence of a strong group of reformers with relevant knowledge resources.


It seems that actors’ knowledge resources gathered from different international contexts influence their intervention capacities in political processes and hence allow them to shape the institutional paths in given national contexts. Also, political and institutional contexts offer opportunities for change actors to use their resources to enact these changes. Hence, both the knowledge resources that actors have gathered from international environments and the motivation for their utilisation in national contexts need to be analysed in the context of the historical neo-institutionalism framework.


The results provide further understanding about the factors that have had a role in forming the differences in the Baltics’ research funding policy systems, and the given analysis can also contribute to better understanding the more general transformation in CEE innovation policies. The focus on the groups of reforms actors’ trajectories and their coalitions could better explain why some strongly pushed EU R&D policy objectives (such as private sector R&D specialisation or a socio-economically relevant public R&D system) are not fully implemented in the Baltics. Lastly, relative to long-term transformation in CEE policies, the Baltic cases expose the need to shift the focus from “eurocentrism” and to take multiple international change factors into account when explaining international impacts on local policy trajectories. The utilisation of different international contexts by change actors can explain the repertoire of solutions that are within the actors’ grasp.


Teele Tõnismann is, since 2014, a PhD student under the joint supervision of Sciences-Po Toulouse LaSSP and Tallinn University of Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance. She currently holds a prominent Estonian Government research scholarship: Kristjan Jaak.



Knoepfel, P., Corinne, L., Varone, F. et al. (2007) Public Policy Analysis. Bristol: Policy Press.

Mahoney, J. and Kathleen, T. (2010) Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power. Cambridge: CUP.

Radosevic, S., Lepori B. (2009) “Public research funding systems in Central and Eastern Europe: between excellence and relevance: Introduction to special section”, Science and Public Policy, 36/9: 659-666.

Tõnismann, T. (2018) “Paths of Baltic States public research funding 1989–2010: Between institutional heritage and internationalisation”, Science and Public Policy