Imagine Malta in 20 years’ time. The government has invested heavily in research, solved the transport issue, developed sustainably, has active, informed citizens and turned the islands into the innovation hub of the Mediterranean. A tall order, but making the right choices now would help the Maltese islands drift in the right direction.

The EU is one of the largest funders of re­search in the world. Malta receives millions every year through competitive funds to carry out projects. Without this lifeline, research in Malta would not have grown to the level seen today – academic papers have nearly quadrupled in the past 15 years, although more is needed.

The EU funds research through a framework programme called Horizon 2020, which will be taken over by Horizon Europe after the year 2020. The new framework seems to be doing away with having social science research and is instead imbibing every research programme with a concept it currently calls Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). The concept is meant to see researchers engage with society at every step of the research process. The idea is to align research to the needs and values of society – a beautiful goal that could transform both the research and the socioeconomic growth of a whole country.

Malta has an opportunity to embed these values in the research it funds and in the institutions that support them. Yet, if this is not implemented properly, things could really backfire. How do you involve citizens in Europe’s largest experiment: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva?

Should citi­zens be deciding when to run experiments that are trying to understand the building blocks of the universe? I do not want that responsibility, given that every experiment costs millions. Instead should LHC re­searchers see it as part of their job description to engage schoolchildren and communities with their work in a creative and inclusive way?

These questions still need to be answered. Researchers and academics in Malta currently balance heavy teaching loads with administrative woes, and need to fit in research somehow. Expecting them to change how they conduct research without streamlining (or reducing) their other job requirements is unrealistic. They will need the right support and policies to be empowered to implement these beautiful goals.

Supporting our researchers in this way will make them more competitive Europe-wide and result in Malta attracting more funds, leading to a better, more inclusive society. It might not solve the transport issue but it will drive the country in the right direction.

The above ideas were discussed at a recent conference in Malta for the NUCLEUS project which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 664932.

Dr Edward Duca is the leader of the project in Malta.

Sound bites

• Traces of opium has been found in 1650-1350BC ceramic vessels from Cyprus by researchers from the British Museum and University of York. It seems humans have been indulging in them for far longer than might be expected. The opium poppy is known to have been widely traded around the Mediterranean.

• About 61 per cent of the world’s 356 turtle species are threatened or already extinct, and the decline could have ecological consequences, according to a new study. Turtles have a 200-million-year-old lineage, but habitat destruction and predation by humans has led to many species being wiped off the map. People should expect more jellyfish blooms and unbalanced ecosystems.

For more science news, listen to Radio Mocha on Radju Malta every Saturday at 11.05am.

Did you know?

• A single cloud can weigh more than half a million kilos.

• A human will eat around 70 insects and 10 spiders while sleeping.

• Coca-Cola without colouring would be green.

• You cannot snore and dream at the same time.

• 10 per cent of the world’s population is left handed.

For more trivia see:

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