Cover Story

About 15 years ago, with research funding scarce, biopsychologist Jaanus Harro, MD, PhD, built a maze out of an empty cake box and used it to conduct a series of behavioral experiments in rodents. That research gained international recognition and has been cited in numerous scholarly journals.

The anecdote demonstrates that "good science can sometimes be done even with modest means," says Harro, who today is dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Estonia's Tartu University, one of only two accredited Estonian universities where psychology is taught. But it also illustrates the determination and ingenuity that sustained Estonian psychology through decades of Soviet occupation and, in communism's aftermath, have helped re-establish a centuries-old tradition of rigorous scholarly endeavor. Today, after decades of repression, psychology in Estonia is again a productive educational and scientific enterprise with world-class ambitions.

"If we had a slogan, it would be 'Participate and influence,'" says Talis Bachmann, PhD, chair of psychology at the Tallinn Institute of Law. "We are trying more and more to publish in international, peer-reviewed journals, present our research at international conferences, collaborate with psychologists around the world and send our students for fellowships to the best universities."

Indeed, Estonian psychologists, by and large, strive not for a distinctive national identity but rather to be a vital part of international psychology. Many are quick to point out that according to a recent analysis, Estonian psychologists' work is published in PsycLIT-indexed journals with about the same frequency, per capita, as are articles by psychologists in France and Japan.

"I don't know if it's good to be unique," says Jüri Allik, PhD, a professor of psychophysics at Tartu University. "I think it's even better to be a part of a bigger network. If you look around the neighborhood, our uniqueness is that we're almost a normal psychology."

Keeping the 'culture of science' alive

Regaining a foothold in international psychology was a hard-won achievement, to be sure. When Soviet troops forcibly occupied Estonia in 1940, science was not spared the repression that overtook the rest of society.

"It's almost impossible to imagine the control that the state had on research and teaching," remembers Allik. "Several subjects were completely prohibited during the Soviet occupation. Mentioning IQ was a punishable, criminal act." Many other areas of inquiry--especially in applied, clinical and social psychological domains--were also taboo.

Even research on more ideologically neutral topics--such as basic cognitive and perceptual processes--was difficult to publish outside of the Soviet Union.

"Everything had to be in accordance with the party policy," says Estonian-born psychologist Endel Tulving, PhD, who fled Estonia in 1944 at age 17 and is now at the University of Toronto. "For a social scientist, that's not that much different from hell."

Yet in many ways, Estonian psychologists were more fortunate than their counterparts in the other Baltic nations and Russia. One explanation, many believe, is Estonia's longstanding intellectual connection to German, central European and Russian experimental psychology and its venerable history at Tartu University, where psychology has been taught since 1802.

In addition, Estonia's proximity to Finland--and access to Finnish television--provided an all-important window to the West. Finally, Estonian émigrés and other psychologists in the United States, Canada and Europe maintained ties with Estonian psychologists during the Soviet occupation; some, including Tulving, regularly sent English-language journals and books to stock Estonian libraries.

"These personal contributions cannot be overestimated," emphasizes Bachmann. "Because of them, the culture of science was kept alive somehow."

Rejoining international psychology

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the country's science establishment pushed hard to attain world standards of excellence, soliciting outside consultants to evaluate universities and departments, establishing a rigorous peer-review system and reshaping the undergraduate and graduate curricula to be comparable with North American and European programs.

"That willingness to submit themselves to scrutiny and make dramatic changes has given Estonian scholars the tools to participate at the world science level," comments APA's Associate Executive Director for Science Merry Bullock, PhD, who was a visiting professor in Estonia from 1997 to 1999.

As traditional areas of academic psychology in Estonia--including cognitive, developmental and psychophysiological psychology--have grown stronger in recent years, new areas of science and application have also begun to flourish. For example, clinical and social psychology, virtually nonexistent during communism, are increasingly popular subjects of study.

But Estonian psychology continues to face considerable challenges. Although academic psychology has made great strides, research in applied psychology continues to lag behind. And, observes Aaro Toomela, MD, PhD, a psychologist at the Academy of the Estonian Defense Forces, "Laypeople still do not understand what psychology could do in schools, clinics, the military and other applied environments."

The country's slim science and education budget is an ever-present impediment for psychologists. The government is able to provide only about $700 annually, per student, for undergraduate and graduate education. Science funding is also in short supply, and university libraries, although improving, still lack many resources.

For better and for worse, Estonian psychology is defined also by its smallness. There are only two accredited psychology training programs in the country, at Tartu University and Tallinn Pedagogical University, each with only a handful of psychologists available to teach a broad range of courses.

"It means that people run from one place to another, teaching at one place in the morning and another in the evening, which sometimes doesn't leave much time for research," laments Toomas Niit, MSc, a professor of psychology at Tallinn Pedagogical University.

On the other hand, suggests Maie Kreegipuu, MSc, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Tartu University and president of the Union of Estonian Psychologists, the smallness of the field breeds a collegiality that psychologists in larger countries don't often enjoy.

And, adds Toomela, "Because Estonian psychologists are pushed to have a breadth of knowledge in order to teach, I think it makes us in some ways theoretically stronger and more open to new ideas--it is good for our creativity."


Population: 1,369,279

Number of psychologists: Since Estonia gained independence in 1991, its two accredited universities have awarded about 150 bachelor's degrees in psychology, about 40 master's degrees and fewer than 20 PhDs.