Nature Magazine: How Estonia blazed a trail in science

When Ülo Niinemets began his PhD in plant science at the University of Tartu in Estonia, he had access to only the most basic tools. It was 1993, two years after Estonia had won independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. The university had just two computers for around 10,000 students and researchers. “I had a ruler and a lab balance,” Niinemets says. “And that was basically it.”

Once the intellectual heart of Estonia, Tartu had become a deprived and isolated garrison town during almost 50 years of Soviet occupation. Students and scholars at the university had been cut off from international science. English-language literature was mostly unavailable and travel impossible. At one point, two ecologists from Finland did manage to visit Tartu, recalls Martin Zobel, a plant researcher at the university. They were followed everywhere by an attentive taxi driver who did little to conceal his connection with the KGB state security.

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