Beyond COVID-19: minister tasked with plan for ‘future-proof’ Malta

As minister for research and innovation, it will be Owen Bonnici to preside over a plan that addresses Malta’s post-COVID challenges

Owen Bonnici
Owen Bonnici

Government’s post-COVID strategy is expected to be published imminently,  before the second quarter of 2021.

With COVID-19 billed to have changed the course of history, both positively and negatively, it will be Owen Bonnici and a ministry steering group to present a blueprint for 12 thematic sectors which are health, social cohesion, societal challenges, sustainable planning and urban development, facilitating business investment, green investment, the integration of education, labour and economic policy, innovation, digital infrastructure, good governance, safeguarding of natural and cultural heritage and disaster recovery preparedness.

What is the specific task of your ministry?

This is the first time a ministry for research and innovation industry has been created. It is crucial to have such an industry set up in a country which aspires to be future-proof. In order to be future-proof we must give research and researchers their due. We must be innovative and use talent to come up with new ideas. So in this sense, having a fully fledged ministry for research is a very positive development.

Another role is the creation of strategies for post-COVID Malta. We have given ourselves a deadline that by the end of the second quarter of 2021 we would have drafted a post-COVID strategy for Malta. To do so, I am bing helped by a capable team led by Prof. Simone Borg. This is a very important role which my ministry is keen to deliver upon.

What do you think is the most salient things for Malta in this sense?

The work will be determined by three main points: sustainability, resilience (we have shown that we are economically resilient as witnessed throughout the pandemic) and thirdly, we have to come up with a strategy which caters not only the economical perspective but the social element as well.

We are a progressive government, and we must take care of the social aspects. Since COVID-19, IT has been a major part of our life more than before. Having individuals who are not conversant with IT in a post-COVID world, is like have people who don’t know how to read and write.

What actions must you take to achieve this?

Firstly, co-ordination is key. In the terms of the reference I gave to the committee, this included coordinating the work by various ministries and entities towards a post-COVID strategy. This has given us a snapshot of who is doing what in post-COVID world. There are sectors which need assistance, such as tourism, which have issued a strategy. Secondly, I have told them to look at what is happening abroad. We have to make sure that we are competitive and relevant. Thirdly, I have tasked them to draw up a strategy by June 2021.

What are you expecting in terms of Malta’s post-COVID challenges?

I think that we have to see the strengths and weaknesses of our economy. We have to contrast them with pre-COVID. Once COVID happened, we realised that we are weak in certain aspects, but strong in others. We have to build on strengths and turn weaknesses into opportunities. This is crucial for us to speed ahead.

I am worried about people who fear they will be left behind. There are vulnerable people who need to be assisted and bolstered. I am not interested in demographics and numbers, I am interested in people. I want this strategy to cater for the people and make a difference in their life. COVID has created a reality were some sectors of society are very vulnerable, more than ever.

Then you have other issues about making Malta future-proof: you see other countries that speak of coding as the language of the future. Or that we have to be trilingual. And if there are those who are not tech-savvy, then they are now vulnerable.

Do you think that certain jobs will be displaced?

I’ll say that it is as if someone has placed the lives of certain individuals on fast-forward…

Another dimension of my portfolio is research and innovation itself. We have people of immense talent who want to change peoples’ lives for the better, be it on the environmental front, food, agricultural, or medical health. This body wants be assisted financially in order to keep coming up with better ideas.

When I was minister for culture, the percentage of GDP created by the culture industry was higher when I left the field six years later. It became an industry itself and the number of people working in the field shot up by thousands.

Now we must become creative in ways of seeking financial streams for researchers in the same way we operated in the cultural field. When academia and industrial research come together, there are great results to be had. What they need is more funding to come up with more ideas. Innovation is the first step, afterwards comes commercialisation. We want Malta to be on this map of research and innovation.