The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

A renewed European Research Area

Owen Bonnici Friday, 4 December 2020, 08:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

I cannot say that I am a stranger to Ministerial meetings at EU level.  I have been regularly attending various Council formations for the last 7+ years and had presided over two of them for six months during the Maltese Presidency in 2017.

The EU Research Ministers’ meeting held last Friday was quite an interesting one.  Of course, I was new to the room but I was very ably advised and supported by an excellent team both in the capital and at Dar Malta in Brussels.  Also, a number of experts from MCST gave their invaluable input.


The focus of the meeting was a renewed European Research Area and I took the opportunity to highlight some considerations on how we would like to see the future evolution of research policy at an EU level.

By way of background, the Commission has recently articulated a paradigm shift towards achieving the European Research Area, based on a new four-fold set of objectives. These objectives are meant to give substance to a reinvigorated European Research Area with the aim to make it more efficient, attractive and resilient to future crises, and more oriented towards “climate neutrality and digital leadership”.

The new set of objectives, construed to be the four new priorities of the EU’s research and innovation policy, are (i) the prioritisation of R&I investments and national reforms; (ii) improved access to scientific excellence; (iii) translating R&I results into economic growth and (iv) deepening the European Research Area by shifting towards greater alignment of national policies.

The launch of this new policy narrative on European research policy has coincided with Government’s watershed decision to establish a fully dedicated Ministry to R&I and the coordination of the post-COVID Strategy.  

The relevance of the ERA has, in my view, never been so critical for Malta’s future economic development. First of all, the new approach being pursued at international level introduces a set of new public investment targets on R&I.

In its policy on the new ERA, the European Commission reaffirms the objective of an overall R&I investment of at least 3% of the Union’s GDP in research and development.

Moreover, Member States are now expected to commit to raising their public R&D efforts to 1.25% of GDP by 2030. The Commission is arguing that this increase would be commensurate with reaching the 3% goal, and in keeping with the requisite high level of ambition to deliver on the recovery and the twin digital and green transitions.

Also, the Commission is also proposing targets to avoid ongoing inequalities in national investments in research and innovation. For this purpose, it has proposed that Member States with modest R&D investment in relation to GDP (like Malta), should direct their investment efforts to increase their total investment in R&D, by 50% within the next 5 years.  

This investment target is no mean feat, especially during the challenges economic circumstances ushered in by the COVID crisis.  More so when one considers that significant discrepancies in R&I levels continue to exist across the entire EU, with Member States with less developed capabilities only participating in 5.6% of the activities and instruments of Horizon 2020. 

It is also unfortunately, clear evidence that only parts of the EU’s Framework Programme are designed to support the closure of the persistent innovation gap in the EU. However, it is by improving our performance in those instruments which are good entry points for our researchers, notably the widening instruments of Teaming, Twinning, the ERA Chairs and also the COST programme that we can improve our R&I standing.

Furthermore, we need to do far more to entice participation in the collaborative parts of the Framework Programme and attract our young researchers to the European Research Council (ERC), and the MSCA schemes.

Our need to better understand the future EU programming instruments at hand is a good illustration of the challenging task ahead, which is essentially about building capacity, improving international networking and diffusing the necessary knowhow.  

Like any major challenge there are also silver linings.

From the outset it appears that there are credible opportunities to direct national public R&I funding towards areas of relative strength such as health, ICT and marine research besides digital innovation, which could help improve our overall R&I performance as a country.

This is why I believe that it time to engage in a frank and sound discussion as to how Malta can improve its overall spend on R&I, by expanding on its success stories, and opening up other sectors for R&I activities.

This week I tried to provide a brief overview of the how I see that the situation at play is.  Next week I will delve more on what, in my view, are exciting areas of opportunity.


I have really enjoyed watching the Netflix series Maradona in Mexico and it coincided with the passing away of this great football genius.

Maradona represents our childhood and youth.  I remember him wearing the “Buitoni” blue Napoli jersey, dribbling players to his leisure and doing all sort of fantastic things with the ball.  His diminutive stature, his black curly hair and sort of “plumpish” physique made him stand out from the rest of the players.

In Mexico, the great football genius is seen, in the series, coaching a second tier football team.  He is a painful sight to watch.  Arthritis affected his legs and he can barely walk.  What’s worse he is overtly obese.  As months go by, Maradona gels with the team and demonstrates rare qualities in today’s world: passion and genuine love to the game and the boys (muchachos).

He kisses each and everyone of the boys before a game, he hugs them, he dances with them, he chants rude songs with them, he has bouts of anger and occasional tears of sadness.

As months go by, Maradona looks better, walks better, is less obese.  The second division team has touched this genius’ heart and improved him.  Although they do not manage to get promoted, Maradona transforms them into men who believe in their abilities and what they can do together.

It is a shame that Maradona died so soon, at 60 years of age.  The world will not be the same without Diego Armando Maradona.  May he rest in peace.


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