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Response to the National Research and Innovation Strategic Plan 2023-2027

The Malta Chamber of Scientists welcomes the National Research and Innovation Strategic Plan 2023–2027 and has submitted its response to the public open consultation launched by the Malta Council for Science and Technology.

The Chamber is fully in agreement with a number of areas requiring action and the proposed support. It is important to increase the engagement and integration of PhD holders within the public sector by providing adequate career paths and opportunities related to research, problem solving and innovation. This can be achieved by creating research institutes within or independently from existing public higher education institutions, manned by a staff complement of full-time, permanent researchers, while also equipping other public entities with the skilled human capacity and infrastructure to pursue scientific research in accordance with national priorities.

Related to the above points, the Chamber insists on the importance of supporting scientific research careers at all stages of the career path. Currently, there is no dedicated support for funding of PhD students, with the only local programme that supports 3+ year projects being the TDP Fusion Scheme, which is intended for commercialisation rather than basic research. Following completion of a PhD or postdoctoral work experience, to pursue a research career locally one must either secure tenure at a higher-education institution – with the very few positions opened based solely on teaching requirements and thus incompatible with a national research agenda – or find employment in a private sector which is limited in size and scope.

The Chamber notes the improvements to the Research Excellence Programme which is meant to support basic research, and wishes to see projects that are funded under such programmes being allowed to run over several years, thus allowing these projects to both maximise their research potential and engaging PhD students for the duration of their doctoral studies (typically 3-4 years long).

Current public procurement procedures are negatively affecting research projects, in particular with regards to delays in procuring equipment. This means that the research output is not being maximised when considering the short-term nature of these projects. Making such procurement procedures more efficient, including by vesting higher-education and research institutions with the authority to administer their own public procurement (known as “Schedule 3” authorities), is essential to allow Maltese researchers to compete with their foreign counterparts on a more level playing field.

There does not seem to be any synergy between this Strategic Plan and the National Strategic Plan for Further and Higher Education in terms of boosting the number of STEM graduates, which will form tomorrow’s scientific researchers and technology industry workforce. According to a recent MCST R&I monitoring report there has been a continuous decline in the number of STEM graduates being produced by Maltese higher-education institutions and there are no concrete plans in either strategy document to address this multifaceted issue.

With regards to internationalisation, the focus appears to be on helping local entities achieve a better uptake of Horizon Europe funding. While this is positive, it is important for MCST to also consider funding and support for national membership of international and European research organisations, which can provide scientists and researchers in Malta with access to highly specialised equipment, data, student training programmes, and international collaborations. This would allow local industry and technology SMEs to bid for tenders issued by such organisations, therefore boosting the country’s research and economic output while producing an increase in high-quality employment.

Finally, one of the recommendations suggests the “setting up of a more formal structure to address STEM Education & Engagement, Entrepreneurship and Innovation”. While this is positive, the recommendations, however, mainly focus on youths who are already on the verge of starting a university course or going to the labour market. Nurturing a love for mathematics, one of the first STEM subjects that young students come into contact with during primary education – is key to having a national cohort of persons into STEM.