RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

  MALTA  -  Birth of Europe-backed research

With a university traditionally devoted exclusively to teaching, no specific research grants and no research ministry, it would appear that in the past Malta – population 400 000 – did not prioritise science. But all that changed in 2001 when it achieved the status of official EU candidate state. Its European commitment has since given it the opportunity to develop an almost virgin research area. 

Laboratory at the Malta Centre for Restoration (MCR). Use of a video microscope to analyse the rate of corrosion on a sample from the armoury collection at the Armoury Palace, Malta.
Laboratory at the Malta Centre for Restoration (MCR). Use of a video microscope to analyse the rate of corrosion on a sample from the armoury collection at the Armoury Palace, Malta.
"Research here is new”, Michael Refalo – National Coordinator for the Sixth Framework Programme on the Maltese Council for Science and Technology (MCST) – has no hesitation in stating. A tiny island state lying between Sicily and Tunisia, Malta has a services-centred economy (finance, tourism) and a traditional manufacturing industry that has long been sheltered by a protected market, as a result of which innovation was not the major concern.

European impetus
Union membership has changed the way of thinking, however, and the available resources. “At first, when informing companies and universities about the Commission’s calls for proposals, we were rather unsure about our capacity to participate,” continues Mr Refalo. “But we learned to identify those instruments of Community policy that are best suited to our size and the exploitation of our research potential.”  Born of this European impetus and charged with advising the Maltese Government in this new field, the MCST drew up the first-ever Maltese programme for research, technological development and innovation. Launched in 2004, this is very much a pioneering step for a state that, lacking the infrastructures, had never before allocated public funds to research. Two principal means of financing were adopted: tax reductions for innovative companies and the allocation of subsidies, mainly linked to Structural Funds assistance. “It is the first time the MCST has been able to allocate funding, even if it is limited. The call for proposals closed in January and the results should be available soon. In any event, the demand is high and the grant applications come to ten times the amount available,” explains Joseph Micallef, researcher and member of the MCST.

Malta Enterprise, the national agency charged with attracting foreign investment and helping the development of local industry, has also come to recognise the importance of R&D. It launched Innovation Framework 2004-2007, a set of actions and tools designed for SMEs, investors or those with technological expertise. Joseph Sammut, director of Technical Development and Innovation at the agency, draws particular attention to the success of the Korbin business incubator. Launched in 2001, this offers facilities, development aid and common services for a period of three years to high-tech start-ups (see Aquabiotech box). The experience has proved so successful that Malta Enterprise is currently thinking of doubling its capacity. 

ICTs and durability
Micro-algae Nannochloropsis © AquaBioTech Group
Micro-algae Nannochloropsis
© AquaBioTech Group
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are central to Malta’s innovation policy as the island is among the most developed of any EU Member States in terms of e-government. In the field of industry, STMicroelectronics, a Swiss multinational that makes integrated circuits, has a plant on the island which accounts for a large share of Maltese exports. Its presence has, in turn, generated start-up SMEs.  

Sustainable development is also vitally important for a country that is Europe’s smallest but also most densely populated state (over 1 000 inhabitants per km2) and lacking in natural resources. The Environmental Protection Agency (Mepa), also charged with town and country planning, plays a key role in this field. “We have commissioned the universities and private firms to carry out a number of studies. It will take us five or six years to comply with European environmental demands,” explains Marie Briguglio, responsible for European affairs. The programme includes the gathering of field data, the development of a geographical information system, and participation in European projects. Meanwhile, the Institute for Energy Technologies, attached to the university, is working on the use of energy in the home and the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.  

University makes the switch
Despite its limited resources, the university is the principal player in this new research activity. The most dynamic faculty, and one involved in many European projects, is engineering. “Traditionally, the best students have tended to go abroad for their doctorate. Having shown proof of the level attained, they are often our ambassadors who form the basis of present co-operation,” explains Joseph Micallef.

So, research has taken off. "When I started my studies, nobody spoke about it,” stresses Carl Debono of the Department of Communication and Computing, and the European contact for aerospace. “But it remains difficult to participate in international programmes because we do not yet have a sufficiently recognised reputation. We must convince our partners of our abilities.” 

This strength of conviction has been in existence since Malta became a partner in such diverse international projects as Twister (e-education), Flysafe (air safety) and Sensation (sensor development). "One must admit that Europe is almost our key source of financing,” says Michael Refalo. “At present, we have submitted 284 Maltese proposals to participate in projects under the Sixth Framework Programme, 62 of which have been accepted.”

Nevertheless, researchers from both the private and public sector stress that European regulations for participation are ill-suited to the needs of the outlying Member States, due to the cumbersome procedures, scale of the projects financed, and only part financing. Brian Restall, national contact for the TIC and MCST, remains optimistic nonetheless. “Thanks to the quality of its infrastructures and the high level of education, our country will soon be competitive.”   

  Specialising in ‘heritage’  
  We want to make Malta an international centre of excellence for the conservation and restoration of our heritage, including metals, paintings, books, ceramics, etc.,” declares Christian Degrigny, Head of the MCR’s (Maltese Centre for Restoration) diagnostics centre. Housed in a former hospital built by the English during the last century, the MCR was founded in 1999 at the initiative of the university and Education Ministry. It trains experts in the scientific investigation of works of art. 

The MCR co-operates on many projects, both European (in particular Ikonos, COST G8 and Promet) and international, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Committee for Conservation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CC), where Christian Degrigny heads the ‘metals’ group. 


  Aquabiotech Innovia, an aquaculture start-up  
  "We set up the company over the course of three months, in 2003, because one of our group’s customers needed a research job done,” remembers Shane Hunter, the young technical director of ABT Innovia, a subsidiary of Aquabiotech (ABT), a Maltese consultancy company active in the field of aquaculture and aquatic technology and environments with customers worldwide today. Located at the Korbin business incubator, ABT Innovia employs a dozen researchers of all nationalities and welcomes foreign students via the European Leonardo programme. It is also a participant in the EU-backed AquaTNet research and education project. 

To enter the laboratory you must remove your shoes and be disinfected, a ritual repeated at every door to avoid any risk of contamination. The laboratory carries out research on nutrition, medicines, neutraceutics, and hatching and rearing techniques for various species of fish and crustaceans (from cod kept at 5°C to tropical specimens reared at over 35°C). A completely closed system of water filtration-recirculation and total control of all the parameters avoids any contamination of the environment. 

Brachionus zooplancton  © AquaBioTech Group
Brachionus zooplancton
© AquaBioTech Group

"We have development projects but are totally self-financed. The local banks are not very interested in investing in science,” explains Shane Hunter.