During a recent tour of the Tal-Qroqq hospital, the Prime Minister was reported as saying that he wants the hospital to be a centre of excellence in medical research. Let us just hope this is not more of the empty rhetoric we are so used to. Which brings me to the subject of innovation.

Unfortunately, when it comes to innovation and public investment in research we are once again at the bottom of the list when compared to our European partners. Not only are we at the bottom of the list but according to the European Innovation Scoreboard Malta needs more than 50 years to catch up with the EU average. In the 2004 national budget some money, Lm500,000, if I'm not mistaken, was voted to fund innovative ideas by SMEs. This project fizzled away. The sum, which in itself, was already risible was not even spent!

The government's encouragement for students to study scientific, technical and engineering subjects at higher levels cannot be faulted but there are certain urgent issues that need urgent action. The lack of modern facilities and laboratories at the university's science and technical faculties is astounding. Staff do their utmost to give students the best possible education but there is a limit. How can we expect students to be attracted to study scientific and technical subjects when the tools necessary to effective teaching are either scarce, obsolete or non-existent?

We can never hope to make Malta a centre of innovation if we do not find the ways and means to invest heavily in education and research. If priorities in research funding are set wisely, public investment will have ripple effects on the economy, the environment, and the overall quality of life of the Maltese people. Public spending in the area of science and technology should promote maximum sharing and transfer of scientific knowledge and technical information in all areas of economic activity. The results of public spending should be enjoyed by all society.

The population in general must be encouraged to participate in a truly national debate about the future. Technical and scientific projects should be subject to open social debates and not restricted to the realm of expert opinion.

If we really want to promote innovation we must also ensure that the building blocks of innovation, information and knowledge are available to start-ups and SMEs. It is in Malta's interest to promote policies on a European Union level defining clearly the areas of information, knowledge and information technology that should always remain in the public space. We are unfortunately seeing repeated and persistent attempts, especially by software multi-nationals, to press for EU legislation patenting the building blocks of computer programmes; this will effectively kick SMEs out of the market. A clear example of what this will mean is the patenting in the USA of an online booksellers "one-click ordering button", which means that nobody else (in the United States) can write a code to be used in their own website having the effect of this so-called invention! We cannot let innovation be hampered by irrational, competition-busting use of the patent regime.

The road may be long, but we must pick up speed quickly if we want to preserve and enhance our quality of life. The seeds must be sown today. The days of an economy based on the building industry and on cheap manufacture are numbered.

Mr Cassar is the spokesman for energy, industry and IT and a member of the executive of Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party.


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