Focusing Malta’s research efforts on solving local problems could be one of the keys to unlocking the country’s full potential when it comes to research and innovation, according to local researchers.
While in many respects Malta trails far behind the more developed countries in research and innovation, this doesn’t mean that it can’t produce research of both local and global relevance.
“Sure we’re small, but that’s something we can use to our advantage,” Department of Physics Head Andre Xuereb told Lovin Malta when contacted.
Lovin Malta reached out to Xuereb, who is also a council member of the Malta Chamber of Scientists, to get his views on the current research landscape and what the future looks like.
Xuereb said that while it was true that the country had come a long way when it came to the quality of its research output, it still had not succeeded in generating the critical mass of research opportunities required to create a thriving ecosystem – like California’s Silicon Valley, for example.
“You need to have different stakeholders in order to start to build an ecosystem. No scientist is going to be attracted to a country where there is only one company doing a certain type of research.
“There needs to be a second and third company, perhaps some venture capital opportunities. When you have multiple players, things start happening,” Xuereb said.
Focusing on local research questions
One way of doing this is to direct funding towards solving local problems, thus mobilising and creating opportunities within the local research community.
“Take offshore wind farms and offshore energy storage. There are few places, especially in Europe, that have the sea to land ratio that Malta has, and it can be used to our advantage,” Xuereb explained.
He said Malta was ideally placed to become a hub for offshore renewable energy generation research, given that it had considerable sea territory at its disposal, as well as the advantage of seeing a lot of sun for most parts of the year, as well as milder sea conditions when compared to other parts of the world.
This, Xuereb said, made it “perfect” for testing such technologies.
“On my side of the woods, quantum research, there is work being done on ultra-secure communication, which, at the moment one would struggle to implement on a nationwide scale unless you’re dealing with a country that happens to be our size,’ Xuereb said.
Similar opportunities are presented in the life science and other areas of research, Xuereb said.
Funding is important, but we also need policies
Edward Duca, a Science communication academic and practitioner, noted the increase in research funding in recent years but stressed that this also needed to be accompanied by policy aimed at growing the local ecosystem.
“You could, for example, give incentives to companies that engage PhD graduates, or incentives aimed at having foreign companies investing in setting up shop in Malta to also include R&D operations,” Duca said.
He too said that more resources needed to be dedicated to solving local problems. “There’s a lot of stuff that could benefit us as a nation but that also has global applicability.”
“We need to move away from this idea that we’re too small to make a difference. Smaller countries have had Nobel laureates,” he stressed.
As for the present situation, Duca noted that there had been a fourfold increase in the number of published research papers in Malta over the past five years or so.
“It’s an amazing increase, the University of Malta has climbed up significantly in the global university rankings,” Duca said.
There were also more funding opportunities, he said, pointing to funds launched recently by the Malta Council For Science and Technology for undertaking basic research. Funds had also been made available under the COVID-19 recovery fund, he added.
Understanding who can solve which problem
Asked whether it was the case that the local business community isn’t inclined to prioritise research activities, Xuereb said that this wasn’t necessarily true.
“That’s difficult to answer but what I will say is that there is often a mismatch, in that many researchers aren’t aware of the problems Maltese industry needs solving, while on the other hand, the industry isn’t aware of who can solve the problems they need solved,” Xuereb said.
He said the Chamber of Scientists was working closely with the Chamber of Commerce to bridge this gap.
In this regard, Xuereb said it was also positive that science was becoming more attractive to the younger generations and appealing to a broader cross-section of students.
“Something I’ve recently noticed is that we’ve changed the narrative about why students should study science,” he explained. “Rather than telling students to study science for the sake of it, we now tell them that many of the most interesting jobs which they probably want to have require the skills science teaches you.”
“We’re already seeing students choosing to study science who would have otherwise not done so.”
New ministry brings hope for bright future
The last Cabinet reshuffle saw the creation of a Ministry for Research – a first for Malta.
“We finally have a minister responsible for research,” Duca said. “I know for a fact that minister Bonnici has met with a lot of stakeholders, which is the right approach to be taking.”
He said that while it was still relatively early days in terms of the ministry’s lifetime, there was some justified optimism. Duca added that it was also very positive that Malta’s post-COVID strategy placed a great focus on the importance of research.
He noted that in the past, while research was “more or less appreciated” by decision-makers, this didn’t always translate into tangible initiatives.
“We haven’t done as much as we could have in recent years, hopefully having a minister responsible for the sector will see us reach the next level.”
Xuereb was similarly positive about the fact that Malta now had a research minister. “It makes a huge difference and gives the community a champion,” he said.
“It’s encouraging. I’ve always believed that getting from zero to one is much harder than getting from one to 10.”
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