Volume 86 Issue 46 | pp. 67-70
Issue Date: November 17, 2008

Baltic Chemistry

Nearly two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania capitalize on EU membership to bolster science
Department: Science & Technology
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Coming Home
Turks saw opportunities in Latvia and returned to his native land in 2007.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
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Coming Home
Turks saw opportunities in Latvia and returned to his native land in 2007.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

MARIS TURKS was a teenager in the summer of 1991 when his homeland of Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union. In the turbulent '90s, Turks studied chemistry in the Latvian capital, Riga, while his country's new government, and the leaders of neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, struggled amid inflation and other challenges to establish themselves as democracies after more than 40 years of Russian occupation.

Like many of the nearly 7 million residents of these three nations that border the Baltic Sea, Turks emigrated westward. In the years after independence, more than half a million people, nearly 10% of the population, left the region.

Turks's destination was Lausanne, Switzerland, to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. "At that moment, I didn't know if I would come back," Turks says. But in early 2007, after a postdoc at Stanford University, Turks made his way back home to Latvia, just three years after the Baltic States joined the European Union. He has since set up a synthetic organic chemistry lab at Riga's Technical University, where he is an assistant professor in the faculty of materials science and applied chemistry.

Turks's return is becoming more common as the Baltic economies strengthen, although his homecoming is not yet a strong trend, many in the Baltics hope it will be.

"I came back because Latvia is my country, and there are opportunities here," Turks says. Because so many people left in the '90s, "there's a generation gap. You can find many scientists in their 60s but not so many in their 40s or younger." As a result, there is room to quickly advance one's career by returning, he says.

When Turks returned in 2007, the economy had improved to the point that "it was possible to live here," he says. "The salaries are still far away from those in the U.S. and Germany, but the cost of living here is low," he adds. "It may not be perfect, but if water is running, if the fume hood works, if students are there, then that's everything you need."

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Europe's Seal
Many pieces of cutting-edge equipment at the Latvian Institute for Organic Synthesis and in other labs across the Baltics were purchased with EU grants, and consequently feature the EU's blue insignia (arrow).
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
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Europe's Seal
Many pieces of cutting-edge equipment at the Latvian Institute for Organic Synthesis and in other labs across the Baltics were purchased with EU grants, and consequently feature the EU's blue insignia (arrow).
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Shiny new instruments sit on the benchtops of Turks's lab. As is becoming more common in laboratories across the Baltics, recently purchased pieces of equipment sport EU stickers, indicating their provenance from grant programs that provide infrastructure to newly joined EU countries. In Turks's case, the instruments include gas chromatography/mass spectrometers, infrared spectrometers, several high-performance liquid chromatographs, and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy systems.

But not every lab at Turks's university, or in the rest of the region, is modernized. Labs in the Baltics feature fume hoods and benchtops that range from many decades-old to brand new. In Turks's case, although the equipment came from the EU, funding for some of the renovations came from a local pharmaceutical company called Grindeks, for which Turks consults and does some contract research. Many scientists in the Baltics support themselves and their labs through a mix of contract research, state funding, EU money, and in some rare cases, international grants, such as from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

ALTHOUGH ESTONIA, Latvia, and Lithuania are often grouped together, the nations speak different languages, and before being absorbed behind the iron curtain after World War II, they did not share the same geopolitical past. Estonia and Latvia spent all but 30 of the past 800 years occupied by Swedes, Germans, and Russians. On the other hand, Lithuania shared political power in Europe with Poland during parts of the past millennia.

"Western people put us all together, but we couldn't be more different," says Kaarel Siirde, managing director of the contract research organization Cambrex Tallinn. "Maybe the latest history is similar, in that we were under Soviet rule."

Perhaps the countries are linked in the minds of international observers because one August evening in 1989, months before the Berlin Wall fell and years before the Baltics gained independence, an estimated 6 million people held hands across the Soviet-occupied Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The chain formed a human barricade some 375 miles long and brought international attention to the countries' desire for independence, a wish that would be granted in 1990 for Lithuania and 1991 for Latvia and Estonia.

"It may not be perfect, but if water is running, if the fume hood works, if students are there, then that's everything you need."

DURING THE SOVIET ERA, science in the three countries was established according to Russian academic structures. Under this system, universities were sites primarily devoted to teaching with only a bit of research, while institutes devoted to specialized topics were the research centers.

Latvia hosted one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious chemical research institutes, called the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis (IOS). Its laboratories were responsible for developing some 17 new drugs and, in total, producing some 25% of drugs taken in the Soviet Union. In particular, the Riga-based institute developed the cardiovascular drug Mildronate and the anticancer drug Ftorafur, both of which remain on the market today.

When Moscow was interested in an institute's research area, it poured money into the institute, as it did in Riga. IOS had cutting-edge facilities in the 1980s, including a pilot plant and animal housing.

"During Soviet times, it was in some ways easier to be a scientist. You did not have to worry about funding," says Peteris Trapencieris, head of the department of organic chemistry at IOS. "But now it is much better because we have our freedom."

Down To Business
A student prepares a sample in the chemistry department at Tallinn's Technical University, in Estonia.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
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Down To Business
A student prepares a sample in the chemistry department at Tallinn's Technical University, in Estonia.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

"The Soviet system was too big to manage science carefully," says Margus Lopp, the chair of organic chemistry at Tallinn Technical University, in Estonia. "So many scientists were free to do what they wanted." But Lopp suffers no nostalgia for the old system either.

Although he did the research he wanted, Lopp says he felt a frustrating isolation. "During the Soviet times we only published three times in Western journals. To get permission to do so, we had to write to Moscow and say that the research wasn't good enough to publish in Russian journals." It's a prime example of "the madness of the system," Lopp says, "because, of course, it was our most interesting work."

Under the Soviet system, researchers were also forced to plan ahead carefully. "Sometimes you had to order as many as three years ahead to get reagents," says Valdas Laurinavicius, director of the Institute of Biochemistry, in Vilnius, Lithuania. "We used to plan for everything that could be useful. But then after three years you would get a reagent that was no longer needed. There was a lot of waste."

As the Soviet Union opened up, many researchers emigrated, some for financial reasons and some, like Saulius Klimasauskas, to improve their scientific skills.

Klimasauskas spent five years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NewYork before returning to his Lithuanian homeland with funding as an international Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher, to pursue DNA modification research at the Institute of Biotechnology, in Vilnius.

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Klimasauskas spent five years in the U.S. before coming back to Lithuania as an international HHMI researcher.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN
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Klimasauskas spent five years in the U.S. before coming back to Lithuania as an international HHMI researcher.
Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Many researchers who stayed home eked out a challenging existence during the '90s. Some started small companies focused on everything from travel to contract research. For example, Latvia's IOS licensed the rights to sell one of its drugs, and used its in-house drug development know-how to do custom synthesis to support the institute's scientists. IOS is now flush with new equipment and renovated lab space, funded in part from the continuing contract research work and from EU grants. The institute continues to support a small fraction of fundamental research projects primarily through contract research income.

After independence, Estonia's government, more so than Latvia's or Lithuania's, moved quickly to reform the structure of science in the country from its Soviet past. Within a year, experts from Finland had evaluated all the research departments, universities, and institutes in Estonia. The review committee suggested merging universities and research institutions, which the Soviets had separated. "Research institutions were strong in instrumentation but had limited access to fresh minds, while universities were much poorer for instrumentation but had the bright young students," Lopp says. The Finns also recommended pruning the system of less productive scientists during the amalgamation.

"It was a quite painful process," Lopp says. "Many people lost their jobs. At the Institute of Chemistry in Tallinn, we had 325 employees before and when we joined the Technical University we were down to 70.

"But cooperation with universities was the best and most efficient decision," Lopp adds. "Although people lost jobs, the strongest groups survived. And the people who left often joined the new government bureaucracy that needed capable and educated people to run state institutions."

BOTH LITHUANIA and Latvia also invited external reviewers to evaluate their science soon after independence, but "there was no real follow-up," Latvia's Trapencieris says.

"The Lithuanian evaluations were put in a drawer," Klimasauskas says. "So the reform of our scientific system in Lithuania is still in progress. What Estonia did in revolution, we are doing in evolution."

Scientists in Latvia and Lithuania still debate whether it would be a good idea to combine the Soviet-conceived research institutes with universities. Most institute researchers fear the bureaucracy associated with universities, but they do want access to the universities' undergraduate and graduate students.

Lithuanian regulators have recently come up with a strategy to unite some university and institute scientists, says Eugenijus Butkus, an organic chemist at Vilnius University. The government invested roughly $500 million acquired from the EU in four research parks, called "science valleys," focusing on biomedical, materials, agricultural, and marine research. The money would be available to both university and institute scientists involved in these areas. To access the money, however, the researchers would have to move their labs to one of the parks, Butkus explains.

Besides access to more funding for infrastructure, "being part of the EU has forced our government to spend more on science funding," Trapencieris says. The EU decreed that member states should set a science funding target of 3% of gross domestic product. Although none of the Baltic countries (or many other EU nations) have achieved this goal, in 2007, Estonia boosted its science research funding to 1.0% of GDP, while Lithuania increased its funding to 0.8% of GDP. The Latvian numbers are not as clear cut, but estimates put funding between 0.5 and 0.8% of GDP, up from 0.2% several years ago.

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HOW THE THREE COUNTRIES handle research grants also varies. Estonia has the most Western model: Grants are submitted in English and Estonian and subject to both international and local evaluations. Only Lithuanian grants valued at approximately $125,000 and higher require English proposals and are subject to international review. But grants of any amount actually represent only a small fraction of Lithuanian funding, Butkus says. That's because only 6% of the country's scientific research budget is distributed through peer-reviewed grants; the remainder is sent directly to universities to support scientists. Butkus and others have been lobbying to increase the percentage of funds distributed through peer review mechanisms to 25%.

Like its geographical position, Latvia's research-funding model is somewhere between Estonia's and Lithuania's, Trapencieris notes. Science funding is distributed both directly and through peer-reviewed grants. But grant proposals are largely written in Latvian. "Some of us younger researchers want the grants to be written in English so that they can be sent out for international review," Turks says, instead of being evaluated within the country where everybody knows everybody.

Although science support in the Baltics is rising, the funding situation is such that attending international conferences is not always possible, except for senior members of the more established labs.

This reality inspired a group of U.S. and Canadian chemists with Baltics ancestry to start a high-profile conference series in their paternal lands. The conference idea "started over a beer" with several other chemists with Baltic heritage, says Victor A. Snieckus, an organic chemist at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, who has Estonian and Lithuanian parents. This past July, more than 250 delegates, including participants from all over Europe, as well as the U.S. and Japan, attended the 5th Balticum Syntheticum Organicum conference. It was held in Vilnius and featured lectures from top-notch chemists, including chemistry Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Lehn.

The conference is a great opportunity to listen to internationally recognized science, said Uno MÄeorg, an organic chemist at the University of Tartu, in Estonia. "We can't afford to send our students to high-level international conferences so instead [scientists] are coming to our home."

One question that popped up during coffee breaks at the conference was whether Baltic scientists who emigrated will soon return home, or whether the brain drain will continue. Augustinas Markevicius is emblematic of those concerns. Last year, the chemistry undergraduate student at Vilnius University was a medal winner in the International Chemistry Olympiad, an accomplishment that helped him secure admission to the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland. "I want to do theoretical computation work, but there are no groups with supercomputers [in Lithuania], so no possibilities to do the research I want to do," Markevicius explains. He says the idea of studying at institutions in Europe is very popular among students, especially at universities in the U.K., Germany, and Sweden.

"During Soviet times, it was in some ways easier to be a scientist. You did not have to worry about funding. But now it is much better because we have our freedom."

When the Baltic countries joined the EU, it became easier for Markevicius and others to move within the EU without a visa, facilitating the continued exodus of students. But it has also created optimism among youth for the future of science in the region, which may pull them home. "After joining the EU, the Lithuanian research situation is getting better and better. Maybe there will be more opportunities when I am finished with my education," Markevicius added.

Some people, like Riga's Turks, are already seeing the opportunities and coming back. Others are moving to places like Tallinn's technology park, which hosts the $8 million Tallinn Technical University Natural Sciences building and $4 million in new equipment for the chemistry and gene technology departments within. The technology park also houses a variety of companies, including Cambrex Tallinn and the local headquarters for Skype, a popular Internet calling service developed in Estonia. Still more are signing up to use the proteomics facility at Vilnius' Institute of Biochemistry, which opened last June after a $1.5 million investment from the EU.

Many in the region are hopeful, even as the Baltic countries face the challenges of rapid development. For example, Butkus says he's optimistic because last month Lithuania elected a physicist prime minister who advocates a knowledge-based economy. Estonia's prime minister is a chemist. And although the Baltic countries still face inflation and many worry about the current global economic crisis, Latvia's Trapencieris remains positive, "for now."

"The system still needs to improve," Trapencieris says. "But the direction is good. And it is better now than it was before."

 

Cover Story

  • Baltic Chemistry
  • Nearly two decades after the Soviet Union's collapse, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania capitalize on EU membership to bolster science
  • A Tale Of Three Baltic Start-ups
  • Three companies that managed to emerge from behind the iron curtain

 
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