Setting the trend: RIDT CEO says society gradually acknowledging importance of research funding [Malta Independent, The]
(Malta Independent, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Duncan Barry interviews WILFRED KENELY, CEO, Research and Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) at the University of Malta who says that the University, along with the RIDT, has helped set a new trend, that of attracting funds for research from society as a whole. He emphasises that while the national research programme fund and EU funds are vital to support research, and although the trend is positive in terms of society's contribution to research, there still exists room for improvement for society to invest further, as was the case recently when two charity foundations donated a significant amount of funds to breast cancer and kidney research Mr Kenely said that "as much as the response in terms of research funding from society is on a positive trend, Malta's research sector has still a long way to go to reach its objective of achieving the great amount of funds needed to help support this field, and the RIDT is looking at all possible streams of revenue which exist to help conduct research for the good of society itself".
Speaking to this newspaper, Mr Kenely highlighted that the Lifecycle Foundation donated €70,000 to the RIDT for kidney research, which will be used to support a research programme into renal failure and its possible prevention.
Only a few of the 760 charities in Malta raise money for research so this donation is a step in the right direction.
He also noted that a number of adventurous cyclists, forming part of the ALIVE Charity Foundation, along with the Action for Breast Cancer Foundation, also donated €55,000 towards a breast cancer research project, facilitated by the RIDT after conducting a charity ride, 'Malta Airport ALIVE 2013 Cycling Challenge for Cancer'. The cyclists covered a distance of 820 kilometres from London to Brussels, followed by Paris, last July. Following the above-mentioned success, the foundation has decided to do it all over again and the funds collected will help boost the breast cancer research programme.
Mr Kenely described these donations as a breakthrough.
"The trend is changing as time goes by, and private entities are starting to realise the critical role research plays in today's society," he pointed out.
In the case of medical-related research, the fact that the population is ageing brings about an increase in chronic diseases, highlighting the need for more intense research in this sector.
Mr Kenely lauded the string of research programmes the university is conducting in various branches including medicine, science, engineering, IT, and even humanity-related subjects such as archaeology and history.
"Three years ago, the government, along with the RIDT, had set the ball rolling to help instil the mentality that financially supporting research helps better the quality of our lives," Mr Kenely said.
He added: "We have finally reached the stage where society is acknowledging the work the university conducts in the field of research and now funds are gradually flowing in through various sectors of the community, including industry, NGOs, and foundations which, until a few years ago, focused their funds on philanthropic projects.
While acknowledging the importance that charitable organisations should benefit from funds, Mr Kenely insists that university research is another good cause that deserves society's support.
And, as the saying goes, charity begins at home, Mr Kenely highlighted that during Christmastime, a number of university employees and students contributed a portion of funds collected on a voluntary basis to research.
"What both the RIDT and the university have been trying to accomplish over the years, that the field of research should form part of the rest of other justifiable good causes the community should support, has started taking place," he reiterated, adding that there still much room for improvement though.
"This is normal run of the mill across Europe, since society plays a vital role when it comes to research funding." Asked if he feels the government should contribute a portion of the citizenship scheme funds towards research, since the government intends allocating a percentage of these funds to social-oriented causes, Mr Kenely replied: "There are other European member states which adopted this approach through similar IIP schemes.
"This is an opportunity for government to invest in the future of the country by allocating a portion of IIP funds to research," Mr Kenely said.
Mr Kenely said that on a local level, the university has invested heavily in research infrastructures, mainly laboratories and equipment, with the aid of the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF), and which has greatly helped increase the research activity in several departments.
"The university is showcasing this research in a quarterly publication called Think, now in its eighth edition.
"The editor of the magazine, Dr Edward Duca, is doing a sterling job in terms of promoting the different branches of research within the university," he commented.
"RIDT on the other hand, tackles the 'outreach' side, engaging with society to raise funds for research as a result," he added.
Turning to Horizon 2020, Mr Kenely, who is the former CEO of MCST, said that the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation – launched recently in Malta – and in other European countries, aims for all EU member states to conduct research programmes together.
The Horizon 2020 is a financial instrument which plans to gather all funding currently provided through the Framework Programme for Research & Technological Development (FP), the Competitiveness & Innovation Framework Programme (CIP) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).
"Horizon 2020 will serve as a platform for international researchers to collaborate on multi-national research projects and to help researchers form networks," he said, adding however that this fund is not intended to substitute national funds but to help boost them.
The European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, was in Malta recently to mark the launch of the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation.
During the launch, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn stated: "Horizon 2020 presents huge opportunities for scientists and innovators in Malta to fulfil their potential." She encouraged researchers to get out of their silos and urged them to include societal aspects to address the socio-economic Science and Humanities across the entire programme.
She also said that the new programme will involve less paper work, making it easier to participate, as opposed to past programmes.
On the national research programme, funds of which are awarded through a competitive bidding process, Mr Kenely said it is vital but insisted that the programme's funds are not enough.
"The university cannot simply rely on EU funds when it comes to research since it is vital the country has its own home-grown research," he said.
Mr Kenely explained that a portion of the funds collected recently by the two foundations will help fund PhD studies of university students as well.
Asked to say if any other private entities have contributed funds to RIDT, he replied that a number of projects are underway at university, which are supported by donors such as the Malta Freeport, FIMBank, the Alfred Mizzi Foundation, and Central Bank of Malta, among others.
Concluding, he pointed out that a number of other initiatives have been created such as 'Science in the City' by RIDT – a celebration of science and art – which attracts thousands of visitors each year, and which serves as a showcase of the scientific work being carried out, creating awareness among the public.
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