There is a thirst for science in Malta. Tens of thousands of people descend on Valletta during the annual Science in the City festival organised partly by the Malta Chamber of Scientists. Any local funding made available for supporting research is quickly exhausted. Malta needs to create more opportunities if it is to reach its full potential.
The Malta Chamber of Scientists has compiled a framework for a forward-looking science policy. This plan aims to bring together research organisations, government, educational institutions and civil society. Prioritising science will ultimately improve the social and economic landscape across the Maltese Islands.
Researchers and their work are seldom in the public limelight. This highlights an endemic problem in Maltese higher education institutions. Researchers are not rewarded for public engagement activities, discouraging them from investing time in it. All higher education institutions must formally recognise and reward staff for public engagement efforts.
Malta already hosts several small and large scale science communication activities. However, these events must be sustained throughout the year to be effective. Such an effort requires the coordination of multiple entities and should not be left solely to researchers. A working group should be set up bringing together government, NGOs, institutions and key individuals.
Coupled with underlying research to design a national public engagement strategy, this will help maximise reach and effectiveness. Public engagement efforts also necessitate financial backing. A competitive public engagement fund is required to finance projects that engage our communities with research and bring science to everyone.
Malta’s future will be decided by the next generation of young adults. They should be given the tools to develop that future in the best possible way. Making science a more central part of the educational system is key. Greater support should be given to schools through centralised resources. A resource unit should be established to provide organisational assistance to schools and material support for lessons, for example by providing innovative demonstrations inspired by the latest pedagogical methods.
Emulating international best practice, websites that foster discussion between educators should be set up. Malta’s small size should be seen as an advantage when tackling issues of science education. Online resources should be complemented by annual conferences – where all science educators meet to discuss issues more broadly, including new science teaching techniques as well as local and national activities. This would help Malta become a powerhouse that produces a more scientifically literate workforce.
Scientific excellence will allow us to develop tomorrow’s technologies, instead of merely adopting them
Malta does not have an established research tradition like its larger competitors in Europe. Any attempt at specifying a specialisation strategy is therefore premature and bound to overlook areas important to our nation. Existing national research strategies discourage large areas of science.
On the contrary, a bottom-up approach to research funding should be employed. Complementing this should be a system of rigorous peer review. Since the scientific community in Malta is tiny, employing international expertise will ensure that truly excellent research is given financial support.
Whereas short-term product development is important, a longer term strategy should be adopted for science. Funding agencies should look beyond ideas that are close to reaching the market. Discovery must be prioritised and technological development recognised as one part of a larger whole. To tackle these issues, Malta needs to develop a mission statement that steers its scientific agenda in a coherent fashion.
Increasing the number of postgraduate students to hit the targets proposed by the European Commission cannot be done without tackling the problem at its root. It is necessary to encourage the creation of high-level employment that benefits from this highly skilled workforce. Public funds should assist those taking a long-term approach to research and development, thus lowering risk for private investors. Targeted tax credits can be granted to small or medium-sized research-oriented enterprises that employ doctorate holding scientists.
Higher education institutions at present squander a significant portion of their meagre research funding on taxation. Equipment and consumables necessary for research should be granted tax exempt status, emulating world leaders in science. Larger donations by corporations and private individuals should be encouraged. Granting tax credits to lower the cost of donations for research will encourage more corporations to fund science as part of their corporate social responsibility strategy.
By approaching these pillars in a cohesive and inclusive manner, Malta will punch above its weight. An informed democracy will enrich public discourse. Scientific excellence will allow us to develop tomorrow’s technologies, instead of merely adopting them. As a result of this strategy the Maltese economy, benefitting from a highly educated and scientifically literate workforce, will eventually grow to lead the pack.
Malta must act now to bring science within everyone’s reach, raise the next generation of problem solvers, support Maltese research at every level and invest in research, development and innovation for a high-value sustainable economy. We deserve it.
André Xuereb, Jackson Levi Said and Edward Duca are scientists at the University of Malta.