15 MAY 2002

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MCST – building a hi-tech future for Malta

David Lindsay speaks to Malta Council for Science and Technology CEO Wilfred Kenely on the steps the Council is taking toward a healthy technological future for Malta

The Malta Council for Science and Technology was set up by the government in 1988 to act as its advisor on scientific and technological matters and to formulate a national science and technology policy.

However, the role of the Council is constantly evolving, just as science and technology itself is rapidly changing day by day. Today the Council is involved in many different areas – from popularising science for the masses, conducting a national research and development audit that will gauge where the country stands at the moment to helping small and medium-sized enterprises gain access to the veritable treasure chest of knowledge from their European counterparts.

In this day and age, in which technology plays an integral role in most of our lives, these fields are still viewed as somewhat dull, particularly in the eyes of the younger generation. MCST is actively pursuing strategies to combat this perception.

As Mr Kenely explains, "In a nutshell what we are doing here is promoting science and technology in all respects. The field has changed radically in terms of the role it plays in society. Some time ago they were considered pure analytic subjects, but now they have integrated into our everyday lives to such an extent that they encompass public, private and business concerns.

"In today’s knowledge-based economy, the key issue is not just how well prepared you are in terms of technology also how knowledge can be turned into business opportunities. We are living in an age where any competitive advantage or added value no longer comes from cutting prices or offering special offers – it’s the way in which you differ from your competitors by being creative."

This creativity, Mr Kenely adds, can only come from innovation, which in turn can only come through research. With this precise aim in mind, MCST is seeking to build a culture for research and innovation, which will lead Malta into the future.

"Today we are still somewhat protected by our traditional safety nets, such as levies on consumer goods. However, regardless of EU membership, these safety nets will have to be withdrawn. In order to cope with this change, we will need to move towards the knowledge-based economy."

To this end, MCST is viewing the EU as a best-practice model of a successful to pattern and is accordingly using its benchmarks and prospectus.

The Council has first embarked on a national research and technological audit, through which it is to derive a snapshot of where Malta stands in terms of research and technology. The field will be quantified in terms of investment, output and where it is taking place.

We want to know how many companies have their own research and development departments, what expenditure is being carried out and how many people are involved.

"On the same token, we are also gauging how much research is being done in the public sector.

"We are using the National Statistics Office, sending out questionnaires, some of which we understand are quite demanding but we need to get the figures. We are the only candidate country that does not have a similar information."

The project as a whole is massive and it will require two years until a holistic picture presents itself. Then it will have to be updated continuously.

Through this audit, the Council will be in a position to identify the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in the country.

The audit is baseline study, the foundation upon which MCST will formulate the future. Very much parallel and complimentary to this is the technology foresight, which could be described as a strategic management tool.

Mr Kenely explains, "There is an established methodology by which you project yourself to the future and you try to build a scenario of how you imagine things will be ten years from now. This has been very successful and is carried out regularly in several other countries such as the US, Japan, Germany, UK and Austria."

Malta’s Foresight project will focus initially on two technological sectors – information and communication technology with a particular focus on education, in which Malta holds a good deal of promise, and biotechnology, in which the University and some private firms are carrying out a good deal of work. The first on ICT will be kicked off in June. There are also plans to hold a third pilot on marine sciences.

Now MCST is preparing itself for the sixth framework programme. Following the experience of the fourth and the fifth framework programmes, where the EU wanted to build a momentum of research, it is now moving up one level and the EU is now looking for larger projects.

Mr Kenely highlights why the EU has given huge importance to the newest, and largest, programme to date. "In the European Community’s bid to match the US and Japan in terms of economic, technological and industrial output, it is creating a European Research Area to counter the massive research being carried out in the US and Japan.

"However, in order to sustain a pole position in research and development, the EU has to assure that each member state is spending at least three per cent of its GDP in the field.

"We have agreed to set the target and perhaps in some 10-year’s time we would be there. We can look to countries such as Ireland for examples but if we want to move toward this target, first we need to know where we stand, then we have to build the culture oriented toward science."

While the former need is being filled by the audit underway, the latter is being addressed by MCST’s Science Popularisation Programme.

The Programme was set up by the Malta Council for Science and Technology in 1995. Its two main tasks are to raise a greater awareness of technological concepts amongst the general public, and to encourage more students to take up sciences at school. The objectives of these tasks are to ensure that no one is left out of the opportunities, and also to have a work force capable of meeting the technological challenges offered by transitions in our economy.

The Programme was launched in January 1996 with the first National Science and Technology Week held at the University campus. The sixth edition scheduled for November of this year.

As Mr Kenely explains, "What we are doing is instigating school children’s love for science and technology. However, there is a certain stigma associated with science and technology that we are combating. So we’re carrying out a programme of activities, particularly aimed at children, with the theme of ‘Science is fun’.

“We have set a target to encourage at least one per cent of the children to take up a career in science. It would be enough. There are children that don’t take science in school because they are afraid and they think it is not for them. It’s not all about labs and test tubes, in fact, when they have hands-on experience they become quite interested."

Other popular activities include science weekends in collaboration with Local Councils, schools and technology providers in a particular area. So far these were held in Mosta and Fgura. Another one is being planned in Bormla at the end of this month.

"However, the most important thing today, economically, is innovation. What we are doing is following a pattern that has been used very successfully in other European countries. This is a Malta Innovation Relay Centre, which is a brokerage of technology by which technology is transferred across borders using a network of IRCs across the whole of Europe.

"The countries involved are not just those countries comprising the European Union but also include countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland."

The IRC network is mainly aimed at SMEs, who can greatly benefit from the sharing of information, knowledge and experience of their European counterparts.

The project will help micro-businesses and SME’s to prospect for new technologies from a European wide network of 68 IRCs but will also help researchers and technology providers to find partners for the commercialisation of their technologies.

In 1995, the European Commission established the IRC network. From April 2000, it has consisted of 68 Innovation Relay Centres (IRCs) throughout Europe including the EU, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Switzerland. These centres have been created in order to facilitate the transfer of innovative technologies to and from European companies or research departments. As a mover and shaker in innovation, the IRC network has become a leading European network for the promotion of technology partnerships and transfer mainly between small and medium-sized companies (SMEs). The IRCs are innovation support service providers mainly hosted by public organisations such as university technology centres, chambers of commerce, regional development agencies or national innovation agencies. Most IRCs are set up as consortia. Each centre is staffed by personnel who have extensive knowledge of the technological and economic profile of the companies and regions they serve.

All IRCs are linked by an efficient internet based Business Bulletin System (BBS), so that technology offers or requests can rapidly be conveyed across Europe. A scheme involving mandatory information templates ensures that all necessary details are given in order to facilitate a sensible appraisal of the technology. The system also ensures that only relevant organisations are approached when searching for partners and/or technologies.

 



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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