An international ambassador for Maltese research and innovation, Malta’s Council for Science and Technology (MCST) is strengthening its bonds with its foreign counterparts and high-level institutions to highlight the advantages and developments to be found in the country’s tech sector. It is also a key component in inspiring Malta’s youth to engage with science, research and innovation, and is an active contributor to the success of the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative, as well as the catalyst for the country’s state-of-the-art and architecturally unique National Interactive Science Centre, as MCST’s Executive Chairman Dr Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando explains.
How important is it for Malta to invest in research and innovation to sustain its economic growth and success that we see?
One of the first tasks I was given, way back in 2010 when I was made Chairman of the Science Council, was to actually start planning and to set up the National Interactive Science Centre. Our main reason for the setting up of that center is to popularize science. We have been faced with a situation where you actually get parents, even guidance counselors, encouraging kids to stay away from the science subjects, which are perceived as being more difficult subjects. Now, first of all, we want to encourage kids to take up more science subjects for their own sake. There are a lot of job opportunities out there, high-level jobs that are being created by this government. At present, we do have a number of high-level jobs being created that are being taken up by foreign workforce, because our economic growth, at times, is surpassing the supply available, when it comes to high-level workforce, especially in certain sectors.
So we’re encouraging kids to take up more science subjects for their own sake and even for the economy’s sake, for economic reasons. The only way Malta can look forward to continue its high rate of economic growth is to continue engaging high-level areas, mostly those related to R&I, and the more kids there are taking up science subjects, the more possible it is for us to move forward, even by falling back on our own home-grown scientists.
Apart from that, obviously, this is going to be a unique venue, a unique visitor attraction. First of all, we are quite fortunate at having one of the best locations in the Mediterranean, if not the world. I’d say with a degree of pride, that the fabricators we have engaged with when it comes to our exhibits, and who have worked with all the major science centers all over the globe, have actually told us that that is the case: it is the best located science center in the world.
It is going to be one of the largest science centers in Europe: 20,000m2 of exhibition space with state-of-the-art exhibits and very interesting architectural layouts. We do have the luxury of being housed in a historic group of buildings, which at times […] rather than restoring them to their original state, we included certain more modern features, which make it a unique experience even architecturally speaking.
We do have, once again, the luxury of having an entrance from the Grand Harbour through a historic lift, which is interesting in itself. So it’s a science center that has a land-based entrance and a sea-based entrance. We’ve restored the historic cot lift, which was used by the British naval forces, to transport injured seamen. It’s what used to be the foremost British naval hospital in the Mediterranean. Since that has been restored, we will actually have direct access from the Grand Harbour into our center. So you can actually get cruise liner passengers just crossing across the Grand Harbour and zipping up into our center, very conveniently. And it makes it fun in itself.
What about the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020?
We are the national contact point when it comes to Horizon 2020. We’ve had our small but notable successes, considering the size of our country. I will have to say with a degree of pride that all our successes are due to the fact that we have a very good team. I was quite fortunate at being able to handpick a number of very very gifted individuals, and very hardworking individuals. I started off with a workforce of 8 very dedicated individuals, but 8 are 8. And having 8 employees having to handle anything ranging from Horizon 2020 to policy to science popularization to a technology development program was a bit of a challenge to start off with. Now we have expanded [to around 100] and I have a very good team around me. We have, as a result of that, achieved quite notable successes. Even when it comes to Horizon 2020, which is a very very competitive fund.
So with this new project you will infuse innovation and research into the education sector, but also entrepreneurship. Who are you collaborating with to make sure this is a comprehensive approach?
We have been, even in the conceptual stages, collaborating with the Ministry for Education to ensure that what we are doing is still relevant to what the kids are being taught at school. We will give them a greater degree of relevance and help kids to understand exactly what certain things are all about, in a fun and engaging way. Beyond that, we are engaged with a number of entities, where we pride ourselves in being a networking organization more than anything else.
So we are engaged, and we have engaged with Malta Enterprise for example at a very high level. We have engaged with the Tourism Ministry, especially with respect to the National Aerospace Center. As a result of our engagement at that level, we managed to have a notable success when it came to a teaming proposal that falls under Horizon 2020, which helped the Tourism Ministry, and notably the National Aerospace Center get funds from the EU, which resulted in a business plan being formulated with the Dutch National Areospace Agency—an agency with a degree of notable experience in that particular sector.
And we engage obviously on a regular basis with the office of the Prime Minister, with our Ministry. We’ve got a great deal of support and it is greatly appreciated, from our Minister Evarist Bartolo, and from our Parliamentary Secretary Chris Agius.
We met with the MTA and other jurisdictions who mentioned there is a will to attract informed tourists, people who are interested in Malta’s cultural side. How do you see Malta shifting towards something more qualitative, offering a wider range of possibilities?
Malta is a 6-star destination. But a 6-star destination has to have the appropriate degree of finish. I’d have to say that we have improved, substantially. I was the first local councilor to be elected in the name of the Nationalist party way back in 1992, and I think that our local councils have instilled a sense of pride in our citizens, which was lacking before that particular development in our political scenario.
There is a lot left to be done. What we’re doing here is obviously giving this area a major boost. This is an area that was crying out for rehabilitation, rather than development. It is an amazing area. Historically speaking, the most glorious episodes of our nation’s history are directly linked to this area. But it has seen a degree of decline, especially following the Second World War, which I think is being addressed, as we speak.
So our project is actually the biggest project ever engaged upon by a Maltese central administration, since the time of the Knights of the Order of St John in the ‘Cottonera’ area.
Beyond the project per se, we were actually engaged in the rehabilitation of the foreshore, which would make this particular area one of the most interesting areas to visit, for locals and for visitors. Beyond that, we are also trying to act as catalysts for the further developments of the whole area. We are speaking about, for example, this area encompassing the only beach in the Grand Harbour area, which is just round the corner. Very few people know about that beach, except the locals. There is this spillover effect, of the boost that we are giving to the area, which is I think affecting the whole zone. The complementary work done on the restoration works related to our historic Fort St Angelo are obviously notable, noteworthy in that respect. And work being done in the Dock Number 1 area. So one thing is linked to the other.
I am engaged with the developers of the American University, which is going to be partially located in the Dock Number 1 area. And all of these projects are giving the area a significant boost. Obviously, we must also focus on the parts in between. And I do think that a number of landscaping works, perhaps a number of much-needed roadworks, will give the area a significant boost. Just across the road from our project there are for example housing units, which I will be encouraging the housing department to perhaps try to give a facelift to. It would definitely benefit residents and it would definitely give the area an even greater boost.
These little things, which we need to aim for, would give Malta the quantum leap into really being, all across the board, a 6-star destination. I’m very pleased to hear the Prime Minister saying this over and over again, and I know for a fact that the Prime Minister really believes in what he says and means it when he says that his administration is going to focus on us giving Malta the upgrade that it actually deserves.
It seems that you really value cooperation, partnerships... Are there any potential people or organizations that you would like see further cooperation?
We are going to do our best to give our relations with North African states a boost, and to give EU relations with this area a boost, through the PRIMA initiative.
We are uniquely placed, politically speaking, when it comes to our relations with the People’s Republic of China, which appreciates the fact that Malta was the first Western state to establish diplomatic relations with that country. We always speak about our special relations; let’s do more to build on that relationship because eventually the best way to strengthen an already strong relationship is to do something concrete together.
When it came to the R&I sector, first of all we established formal concrete relations with our counterparts in China—that’s the Ministry of Science and Technology—and activated an MoU with that particular. And we decided together to focus on something which Malta already had a degree of strength in.
Rather than speaking using very impressive-sounding words and terminology but doing nothing concrete, we went down to the nitty-gritty and decided to focus on aquaculture, an area in which Malta has particular strength.
So we’re focusing on the aquaculture sector, working very closely with Minister Herrera in that respect, who’s also in charge of fisheries, working very closely with the departments of aquaculture and fisheries. And we should be seeing something concrete coming out of that particular relationship in the coming months, sooner rather than later.
Beyond our relations with China, we have strong relations with particular countries, strong relations with Israel, for example, through a particular consortium that we’re in the driving seat of—MCST is actually helping to run this consortium, which I would say, I’d rate as being one of the most interesting experiences in my chairmanship over the past 6 and a half years. The consortium includes the Weizmann Institutes, the Karolinska Institutes, the World Health Organization—and that’s the first time that a UN organization is engaging with a consortium focused on getting funds from the EU. So we’re quite fortunate in that respect. The University of Zurich, McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group... Very high-level partners. And it’s with a degree of pride that I attend the meetings I organize for this particular consortium, and to see the appreciation that these high-level partners have for the contribution being given by our Republic, and whole-hearted support being given to our consortium’s efforts directly by our Prime Minister.
And once again, we would not be in a position to make the most out of our relationship with this consortium, and we would not be so valued by the founders of this consortium to be considered as a leading partner, were it not for the very very well-experienced and professional workforce, team, that we actually have at MCST.
Would you say you act more as a Maltese ambassador for research and innovation really internationally?
Yes, on a very high level, in this particular instance for example. What we do, we try to run our entity more along the lines of what one would consider to be a private institution rather than your typical civil service related institution. So I do feel that we exhibit a degree of efficiency that one would not normally associate with the civil service. We do try to engage in a concrete way with anyone that we try to establish a relationship with, but in a reasoned and in a structured way. So it’s useless trying to aim at a number of different institutions when we already have so much on our plate. We would rather build on the strengths that we already have or are establishing, rather than going for initiatives, new initiatives, which would not be able to give our 100% to.
We have close links with the Weizmann Institute in Israel and with our counterparts and high-level institutions in Italy, Germany, France, the UK, the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and Cognos in Germany, which runs about 80 high-level educational institutions throughout Germany. So we will continue to build on our strengths.