Science in Malta, can it compete? A high-tech EXPO in Milan reminds a Maltese science writer, Edward Duca,of why Malta needs to fund more research students.
I stood outside the Asmiov Robotics tent. I felt at home, a grown-up robotics playground called the hi-tech EXPO in Milan, that ran from the 14th till 19th December, and hosted some of the leading technology companies in the world; in total, over 140.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is an amazing place. It’s where hypertext, the fax machine, cancer-causing genes and the GPS were invented. In Milan, they were showcasing their WIMAX wireless energy transfer technology. It can launch energy, without the need of wires, through two metres of air. The technology works because of coiled magnets present in separate devices but which resonate with each other. Place a table in the way of this energy, no problem, WIMAX gets through it without a fuss. Concrete? Not an issue for WIMAX.
I stood there gob smacked, watching a grainy skype video image as an MIT scientist powered an LED bulb using a WIMAX energy source located a metre beneath a table. Their vision is to bring these energy transfer devices to your wireless homes and to embed them in concrete to charge your electric car, whilst parked. MIT has several patents in this technology, it could make millions, and it also has over 3,000 PhD students.
From a small town in Italy, I talked to Laura Margheri, a PhD student in Bio Robotics. She was developing a soft robot based on an octopus. The robot was flexible, made out of silicon and could grasp an arm. It’s still in development, but once complete it could scour the sea floor monitoring the state of the environment, studying marine life and crawling through pipes to find blockages or leaks.
Malta wasn’t to be left out of this exhibition, with local company SIB Laboratories Ltd exhibiting therapeutic Russian space technology. They are bringing this technology to hospitals through collaboration with a number of organisations including the Russian Academy of Sciences, Fondazione Salvatore Maugeri from Italy, and the University of Malta.
SIB Laboratories Ltd is adjusting the Regent™ suit and Korvit™ foot simulator to bring to a hospital near you. The Regent™ suit is purely mechanical having straps, belts, and elastic cords that put pressure on your body when you move around. It was developed for Russian cosmonauts to prevent bone and muscle loss at zero gravity. On Earth, Russian scientists claim it can speed up recovery after brain injury or stroke.
The Korvit™ foot simulator is an incredibly simple machine having two rubber balloons on each foot through which air is pumped. The balloons inflate that are meant to make your body feel like you’re out for a stroll when lying on a hospital bed. They claim it can get stroke patients on their feet in half the time. Now, a local team led by Prof. Kenneth Camilleri are studying this equipment, if validated and improved, these technologies would be a powerful and economical way to treat patients.
These amazing projects show the benefit of funding PhD students. Malta is tapping into EU funds (University alone has received over £40 million), but we are not tapping into our brainpower. Pushing businesses to fund PhD students would finally start turning Malta into that fabled catch phrase: a knowledge-based economy.
Supporting PhD students to do research is the most cost-effective way for companies. PhD students do not cost much, I did a PhD in Edinburgh and used to earn £12,000 per year, local students normally get less, a similar price in euros would extract the best young minds in Malta for the project. A PhD lasts 3–4 years, so in total it would cost around €36,000–€48,000. The benefits are a patented discovery that can be sold.
Are there any other costs? Perhaps equipment and materials but nothing extensive, the University of Malta has recently upgraded a lot of its facilities, companies simply need to support the hands and brains to use them.
PhD students are also highly motivated because they have to publish articles or create patents to move forward in their careers. They often work beyond a 9 to 5 job, for example while researching in Edinburgh I regularly worked 10 hour 6-day weeks, because I wanted to succeed. For companies, this drive implies a potentially high return, at low risk.
Malta will never attract the near US $10 billion endowment that graces MIT (our GDP comes in at around $8 billion), however we could attract a lot more money to support our best minds. They can be attracted to remain or come back to Malta, instead of being lost to the ever perpetual brain-drain to Europe, USA and Australia.
About the Author
Edward Duca has a PhD in Genetics and currently exploring the world of science writing and communication. He thinks that science is not just for himself, but for everyone to enjoy and inspire. Find him on his blog, ‘An Unexpected Science Nugget.’