Former University of Tartu rector and auditor general Alar Karis finds that if the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance really paid people for work they didn’t do, it constitutes fraud and theft. Karis said that Aaviksoo should have acted immediately after meeting with whistle-blower Keenan McBride and that he would have admitted mistakes in Aaviksoo’s shoes.
How seriously should we take what happened at the Ragnar Nurkse institute? Was it fraud and theft?
I knowingly refrained from talking to rectors before this interview, meaning that my information is from the media. If it is true that researchers were paid for not participating in the project, it is clearly a case of fraud. Such fraud is usually punishable.
Are we dealing with a special case or a widespread scheme in Estonia and elsewhere?
It is difficult for me to say. Nothing like this came to light when I served as rector, which is not to say it was impossible. However, we should keep two things separate here: the specific case at hand and the broader question of R&D funding. Whether such practices surface in the conditions of underfinancing or whether the problem goes beyond that. Working abroad, I have noticed that the temptation to be creative with accounting might be even greater in working groups made up of top scientists and subject to international pressure.
What to do to avoid such misuse?
What can you do. We need to continue believing that most people are honest and that scientists are not an exception to this rule. Such things happen. That is why we have control mechanisms inside universities, on the state level and in this case also the European level. Simply knowing these mechanisms exist can keep people in check.
The Nurkse institute said it was gathering reserves.
One needs to gather reserves by not breaking the law. If you see that the system isn’t working, you need to propose amendments, not go on a stealing spree. But it is a problem, and in truth, universities have levers with which to pay researchers.
What is your assessment of Rector Jaak Aaviksoo’s handling of the situation? He met with a doctoral student who gave him an overview of the situation, but the rector did not act.
I’m a very timid person. If I get caught, I immediately confess and try to make amends. I do not waste time on justifications. If you make a mistake, you need to own up to it. Whether everything happened as the media says is another question; I do not have those facts today.
You believe it was wrong of Aaviksoo to look for justification?
Yes, even though it is understandable because the university’s reputation is on the line. That said, I’m not afraid that donors will now find that TalTech and Estonian scientists are all horse thieves who are not worthy of being funded. This type of misuse happens in all walks of life. Rather, it is something else that worries me: whenever something like this surfaces, it makes young people think very hard on whether they want to become scientists. Not least of all because there already exists a notion that becoming a scientist requires one to be tenacious in securing a place in the doctoral program and handling all these accounting finesses as opposed to just being the best. It might scare young people away.
Should Aaviksoo resign over his mistake?
We have mechanisms for that, and TalTech has its own advisory board who picks its rectors. It is very difficult to say so from the outside without knowing all the facts.
But he should have taken immediate action after hearing from the whistle-blower?
Yes, if things are how he says they are, then Aaviksoo should have acted. If you know things are bad, you need to try and solve them, especially since the whistle-blower in this case is from another academic culture; perhaps we need to pay more attention to them as they lack the kind of connection Estonians have to their university and state.
Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps has said that should it turn out this scheming goes beyond the institute, more effective punitive measures need to be considered. What could help?
In this case, where a person has stolen funds, those mechanisms exist in the law. A thief needs to be held responsible. What could those other mechanisms be… I think we should not tighten the screws too much, have even more control. I believe Mailis Reps will decide what to do once she has met with Aaviksoo and carried out an audit.
Several researchers have refrained from referring to the incident as theft. They have tried to mitigate the situation, referring to what happened at the institute as light scheming. Why is that?
If the media has published concerns that people have taken money for work that they haven’t done, I don’t know what else to say.
What will become of the Nurkse institute?
I believe it will continue to exist, along with TalTech. Institutions are not criminals as violations are committed by individual people. People who have caused problems for themselves and the university in this case are the ones we should be looking at.