The annual RIO Country Report offers an analysis of the R&I system in Malta, including relevant policies and funding, with particular focus on topics critical for EU policies. The report identifies the main challenges of the Maltese research and innovation system and assesses the policy response.
The Research Excellence Composite Indicator ranks Malta (23rd in EU28) markedly behind the leading EU Members States. Compared with similar size economies and neighouring countries, Malta is coping better, but is still lagging behind. The overall score of Malta increased, but starting from a very low base (17.73 in 2007 to 23.27 in 2012). Among the different components of the indicator, the highly cited publication and Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) patents decreased in 2012 compared to 2007, the top universities and PROs score remained the same and only the sum of European Research Council (ERC) grants increased. In terms of share of publications among the top 10% most highly cited Malta's performance fluctuated across years and the country (5.42% for 2000-2013) still lags considerably behind the similar size economies countries (LU – 9.68%, CY – 8.01%) and EU28 (10.55%).
Malta's latest investments in research infrastructures are supported through EU Structural Funds (2007-2013). While it is expected that these initiatives will continue during the next programming period, some delays could occur leading to a temporary dip in the developing of RIs. The investments were targeted mainly at UoM's laboratories and equipment and no large scale RIs are available in Malta.
Malta’s R&I system is relatively young and small, which is reflected in sub-critical mass. The level of R&D expenditure in the higher education sector in 2014 (0.27% of GDP) was low compared to the EU28 (0.47%), with most of the funding allocated to the University of Malta, the main research performer in the higher education sector. The funding allocated to government research bodies was even less (0.08% of GDP, EU28 0.25%), which is not surprising since the country has only one PRO, the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre and the area in which it operates was not identified as one of the thematic priorities in the former national R&I strategy in force until 2014.
Malta does not have any funding programmes targeted exclusively at academic research, funding for research projects is very limited, and there are few full-time researchers especially at the post-doctoral level. Malta has only 0.21 new doctoral graduates per thousand of population aged 25-34, compared to the EU average of 1.81, and ranks last on this indicator (Innovation Union Scoreboard 2015). In absolute terms the number of researchers is small, with only 891 FTE in 2014, which accounted for 0.46% of the total active population, compared to 0.73% in the EU.
The government, through the National R&I Strategy 2020, acknowledges the need to further strengthen the "knowledge base" and centres its efforts around three areas: investing in human capital; research infrastructures and capacity building for excellence in climate change adaptation.
Malta has set targets to be achieved by 2020 for both number of researchers and doctorate holders. A number of measures are in place to encourage more individuals to pursue studies in science and technology. A National Interactive Science Centre is being developed with the aim of encouraging more students to opt for science subjects at secondary school level. At post-secondary and tertiary level, the monthly stipend allocated by central government to students following science and technology subjects is higher than that awarded to students following other subjects. In order to increase the number of individuals with a doctoral qualification, the Malta Government Scholarship Scheme (MGSS), Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarships (STEPS) and Endeavour scholarship schemes were introduced. An important development is the launch of the Reach High Post-doctoral Grant Scheme in May 2015.
Malta has implemented several investment projects related to research infrastructures, mainly research laboratories at the University of Malta. Other infrastructure initiatives, although not targeted primarily at the science base, would be expected to have a positive impact in this area. These include the Malta Life Sciences Park and Digital Hub infrastructures which support the health (pharmaceuticals) and ICT-themed R&D. The ERDF allocations in the Operational Programme 2014-2020 include significant funding for new infrasturcture initiatives.
Climate change adaptation was identified as a priority for capacity building in the National R&I Strategy 2020. There are initiatives and expertise in this area within the UoM (Climate Research Group), the Malta Resource Authority, The Malta Environment and Planning Authority and the Ministry for Sustainable Development, the Environment and Climate Change. Malta aims to consolidate it and build on these through the development of a centre of excellence on climate change. The Smart Specialisation Strategy outlines other areas of particular interest, where Malta will seek to build on existing and emerging capacity, e.g. tourism, maritime services, aviation and aerospace, health, resource-efficient buildings, high value-added manufacturing with a focus on processes and design, aquaculture and ICT as a cross-sectoral enabler.
Malta has made great strides to address the issue with human capacity in R&I at all levels of education. The different scholarship schemes worked well in attracting more doctoral graduates, although the results have not yet been captured in the IUS indicators. The new post-doctoral grant scheme fills an important void in the funding system, although there is a danger that much of the funding will find its way overseas rather than being used locally. The targets set in the HR area are very likely to be achieved even before 2020, although it must be remarked that these targets are much less ambitious than the target for GERD. The continuation of existing support measures is very important for the continued development of researcher talent.
Significant progress has also been made with regards to the improvement of the research infrastructures, and the recent upgrades to equipment in a number of university laboratories permit the undertaking of better-quality research. Newly built facilities are in line with the priorities identified in the National R&I Strategy and the S3. Although small in scale by international standards, the allocation of ERDF funding for further investment in RIs planned for the current programming period (2014-2020) should considerably improve the knowledge base in the long-term perspective.
In spite of these positive developments, however, funding for public and academic research activity remains very low. Such funding is necessary to provide research opportunities for the growing researcher pool, and to enable the exploitation of the significant investments made in research infrastructures in recent years.
Although the rolling R&I Action Plan containing concrete measures has not yet been officially adopted, preliminary indications point to a possible match between developing excellence and S3 identified areas in health, aquaculture and aerospace. It is important that Malta further develops capacity in the selected fields through establishing high-class infrastructures and networking activities.