University twinning unites Maltese and Belgian scientists to work on climate change
Joanne O’Dea, Science|Business


With the 2013 Innovation Scoreboard showing continued dominance of Europe’s leading countries and scant progress in others, a university collaboration between Malta and Leuven on climate change aims to bridge the gap

The Commission’s latest attempt to redress the quality divides in European research will see universities in less R&D-intensive member states twinned with long-established and better-endowed counterparts, both to carry out joint research programmes and to support the creation of centres of excellence in less developed regions.

The budget and programme for these schemes is currently a focus of debate in the ongoing political negotiations over Horizon 2020 – the EU’s R&D programme, due to get under way in 2014.

The prospect of using Horizon 2020’s already diminished budget to build research centres has drawn strong objections from the League of European Research Universities (LERU).

Malta – Leuven Partnership

While Malta’s innovation performance lies below that of the EU average, it has been a leader in the area of climate change and was the first country to table the issue of climate change in the UN General Assembly. As a senior lecturer in Environmental Law at the University of Malta, Simone Borg attends many international conferences on the subject, and it was at a conference that she met Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary General of (LERU) and Professor of Law at KU Leuven.

Few academics concerned themselves with climate change at the time, and so Borg and Deketelaere decided to share their expertise. “This led to the first Erasmus agreement we signed with Leuven as soon as Malta became an EU member,” said Borg. Students and staff began to exchange and engage across the two institutions, similar to the proposed twinning scheme.

An opportunity to deepen the relationship arose when the EU began to formulate its climate change adaptation policy. Recognising the need for expert advice, Borg and Deketelaere established the Malta Legal Forum on Adaptation to Climate Change in 2010. This forum has since advised DG Climate Action on the legal aspects of adaptation policies.

“As an island nation at risk from climate change, Malta has unique domestic expertise,” said Deketelaere. “Collaborating with the University of Malta thus brings greater credibility to KU Leuven’s work in the area of climate change,” he said.

Malta in return benefits from the research experience, reputation and network of their more illustrious university partners

Benefits Extending Beyond the Lab

While the advantages for the institutions involved are clear, the impact on the wider region is more central in bridging the innovation divide. Borg is convinced that this collaboration will promote research and science across Malta. “The relationship between government, industry, academics, students and so on in Malta is very close, given Malta’s size. Academics are often highly involved in governmental structures, industry, and policy making. Students from this partnership would eventually become Members of Parliament, key stakeholders in policy making, MEPs etc.”

An exemplar here is the Portuguese MEP, Maria Da Graça Carvalho, a strong supporter of twinning. As a researcher at the Technical University of Lisbon, she was offered the opportunity to work at Imperial College London. After leaving London, Carvalho went on to become a professor in Lisbon, and later became Minister for Science, Innovation and Education under then Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso. Carvalho continues to influence R&D in Portugal – and in the EU – as a Member of the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee of the European Parliament.

Another example of this wider impact is the success of 20 research institutes which were founded by the German research body, the Max Planck Society in former Eastern Germany, following reunification. In Dresden three Max Planck Institutes were established: Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics; Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems; and the Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids.

These institutes have built international reputations and have drawn other research institutes and technology start-ups to the region. “Science is an engine for innovation,” said the President of the Society, Peter Gruss, “and where research is conducted under excellent circumstances, the entire region benefits.”

Of course, the Malta – Leuven partnership is far from being the only such collaboration in Europe. The Top 500 Innovators Programme, an initiative supported by the Polish Ministry of Science, enables promising Polish scientists to undertake a two month residential course at Cambridge University. The hope is that by living and training in a high tech cluster, these scientists will develop a greater understanding of innovation and commercialisation, which they can apply to their research when they return home.

Measures designed to bridge the Innovation Divide

Given the positive effects of research partnerships on both the junior and senior partners, and the impact on the innovation divide, it is unsurprising that the Commission has proposed a number of collaborative schemes for Horizon 2020.

Under the twinning scheme, an emerging institution will be linked with at least two international leading counterparts in a particular field of research. In practice, the linkage will take the form of staff exchanges, expert visits, workshops, conferences, joint summer schools, and so on.

The teaming scheme would more elaborate, involving the creation or upgrading of Centres of Excellence in less R&D-intensive member states and regions. Following open calls for proposals, the best teams consisting of a less R&D –intensive region and advanced institutions will be selected and given assistance to develop a business plan for setting-up or upgrading a centre.

The question of how the teaming project will be funded is an interesting one, with Deketelaere saying, “Horizon 2020 should not be used to provide the bricks and mortar for building a Centre of Excellence in less research and innovation-intensive regions.”

The Commission says Horizon 2020 will focus on excellence and innovation, and any infrastructure or equipment for the Teaming project will be funded by national or regional resources, including Cohesion Policy Funds.

Whenever new infrastructure is needed, a commitment to the Centre of Excellence from the recipient region or member state is expected and it is likely that much of this will come from Cohesion Funds. Within the 2014 – 2020 programming period, Cohesion Funds investment in research and innovation will be conditional on the establishment of “Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation”, under which each region will need to identify its greatest source of innovation potential to ensure money is invested effectively.

Maltese specialisation strategy

As an example of how this may work in practice, plans are underway to establish a multidisciplinary Centre of Excellence on Adaptation to Climate Change at the University of Malta. KU Leuven has already launched a campaign for the inclusion of the Centre of Excellence in the Maltese Specialisation Strategy. “I will soon meet with the President of Malta and the Minister for Climate Change to stress the importance of this,” said Deketelaere.

Another new measure addressing the innovation divide is the establishment of European Research Area (ERA) Chairs to attract leading academics to lagging institutions which have clear potential for research excellence.

A pilot call has already been launched with a budget of €12 million, which the Commission proposes to enlarge under Horizon 2020 if the pilot proves successful. Meanwhile, in Malta, plans to apply for an ERA Chair for Climate Change in Malta are in hand. With a limited number of chairs, and a maximum of one chair per country in the pilot project, winning one, “would be a significant achievement,” said Deketelaere.

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