On science and research, Malta still suffers from too little cash, and weak policy

Malta’s spending on research and development does not even exceed 0.8% of its GDP. Scientists say the island needs a more research-driven economy

Investment as a percentage of GDP has been going down since 2012, from 0.87% to 0.77%, meaning investment grew less than the economy did
Investment as a percentage of GDP has been going down since 2012, from 0.87% to 0.77%, meaning investment grew less than the economy did

Data published this week by the National Statistics Office (NSO) shows Malta having made an investment in the field of research and development of €71.5 million in 2015, the year of the latest available data. 

The figure is equivalent to 0.77% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – the value of goods and services produced – but it is the fourth lowest in the EU.

Investment has been going up since 2012, going from €59.7m to €71.5m in 2015, although at €11 million, it is hardly going to make a difference said Alex Felice, Chamber of Scientists president and an experienced researcher in Malta and the United States.

“The national research investment is minuscule compared to other countries even of comparable size and economy,” Felice said.

In fact, investment as a percentage of GDP has been going down since 2012, from 0.87% to 0.77%, meaning investment grew less than the economy did.

“It’s meagre at best, and most of that does not fund materials and resources, but wages,” said Edward Duca, an Innovation Communication lecturer and editor of Think, the University of Malta’s research magazine.

According to the NSO, 54.9% of investment in 2015 went to wages, with 10.3% invested in new instruments and equipment. 

Malta’s economy has depended on foreign direct investment for its success over the years but this isn’t a future guarantee, and exposes the country to the “financial whim of others”, Felice said. 

“Business innovation with high value-added developed from our own research would be the source of new economic sectors that can yield the good jobs of tomorrow.”

Similarly, Andre Xuereb, a senior lecturer in physics emphasised the need for a research-driven economy, arguing that Malta needed to shift from being a user of technology to a creator. He said policy-makers should not expect research to pay off in the short-term however, insisting that its long-term nature should not relegate it to an economic “luxury”.

“It’s often research for its own sake that leads to the most ground-breaking discoveries and the biggest rewards,” said Xuereb. 

Sadly, this wasn’t yet achievable, said Felice, since “successive governments have lacked the political will to invest sufficiently and sustain a national research programme”. 

It was also pointed out by Duca, that the fact that the government seems to have removed the term research from the title of any cabinet member did not bode well for the cause. 

Rather than remove the term, he said a stakeholder working group should be set up, tasked with “reinventing the local environment” to encourage growth, since policies have so far failed to encourage research-based entrepreneurship. An example of this, he said, was the high tax rate on ventures based on “local innovative ideas”. 

Xuereb was more optimistic, noting that both parties had pledged to at least double government investment in their manifesto before the last election.

“It thus seems that we’re on the right track to achieving investment of at least 1.6% of GDP,” he said, adding however that there were several issues to be dealt with first. 

Xuereb said a substantial amount of funds needed to be set aside for fundamental research, since European funding tended to become available only at the commercialisation stage. 

Moreover, he said more incentives were needed for students to read for a PhD in Malta. 

“I know of several cases where students lived off an annual stipend of €2,500 whilst reading for a PhD. Compare this to the standard case elsewhere, where PhD students are treated as bona fide researchers,” he said, again suggesting a publicly-funded scheme for supporting PhD students. 

The NSO also found that 80% of invested funds originated in Malta, coming mainly from the private sector, while the remaining 20% in foreign derived funds came from the European Commission. 

Asked if attracting established foreign ‘research companies’ to Malta, should be prioritised over local investment, Felice pointed out that such companies differ from other enterprises in that they rarely move from one country to another. He said that without excluding foreign partnerships, “the larger contribution should be expected from home-bred research and business development”.

This, he said, could be accomplished through an investment worth 2% of GDP, in national funds open to all research institutions. 

Xuereb highlighted the fact that foreign and local investment could not be easily separated. 

“Google recently bought an entire group of scientists and their lab from the University of California,” he said. “The best incentive government could give research companies would be giving academic institutions in Malta the tools, financial and otherwise, to grow and maintain world-class research labs.”

One possibility for addressing a number of the concerns raised would be to direct funds towards better paying PhD programmes focused on areas of particular relevance to the government policy-making. 

Xuereb said that while he did not necessarily believe in prioritising one area over the other, it made sense to tap into the “substantial pool” of scientific know-how for better-informed policy-making. 

If it were up to him, Duca said he would create “multiple funding streams” and would leave some open to research ideas from all sectors, while setting aside another batch of funding for “priority areas for Malta to excel and compete on a world level”. 

“Critically, these funds should be tied to effective public engagement of the research generated, so that Maltese society is involved in the research progress,” he said.

Total R&D spending by sector in 000s

                                                                 2013     2014     2015

Government Sector (GOV)                    5,628    6,042     11,803

Business Enterprise Sector (BES)       30,544    33,460    36,729

Higher Education Sector (HES)           22,883    21,037    22,960

Total R&D expenditure                         59,055    60,539    71,491

% of GDP*                                                0.77   0.72        0.7

R&D in Malta: Vital Data

The most money that gets invested in is engineering and technology, and specifically by the business sector: 20m euros

The government’s main spend in R&D is in medical sciences: 8.6m euros

The business sector remains the most important source of local R&D funding in 2015: 32m euros

The University of Malta provides the second largest sum for R&D: 17.4m euros

The European Commission is the main source for foreign R&D funds: 12m euros

Total employees in R&D in 2015: 2,375

Of these, the government’s total workforce in R&D is only: 72

Source: National Statistics Office, Malta