Insight

Getting Ahead in the Quantum Economy

Quantum technologies have the potential to be the next big thing and research from the University of Malta is already making its way out of the labs and into the real world, says Professor André Xuereb.

Can you tell us a bit about your area of work and why quantum physics are so important today?

We tend to think that we understand the world around us very well. Anyone playing football would be very surprised if the ball passed through players or moved in some unexpected direction when hit. However, these do in fact happen when we discuss the behavior of very small objects. Tiny things can be in two places at once or pass through solid walls. This is the world of quantum physics. Recently, it was discovered that this strange behavior is more than simply a curiosity but can give us better technologies. Quantum computers, for example, make use of “qubits” that can be both 0 and 1 at the same time – unlike the bits of a traditional computer – to perform calculations very quickly. It is very likely that in the next decade quantum technologies will revolutionise everything from how we protect our information on the internet to how we discover new medicines. Countries that invest in developing these technologies will be in a very good position to exploit the new, quantum economy.

 

What recent work from your team would you highlight?

There are a couple of pieces of research that we published over the past year that I am particularly proud of. One was about sharing quantum entanglement – a strange quantum property that allows us to build ultra-secure communication links – between Malta and Sicily over the Melita telecommunications network. Our results broke a world record and demonstrated how these technologies are now ready to move out of the laboratory and into the real world. The second was published in the world-leading journal Science. We showed how it is possible to use the global telecommunications network as a sort of microphone for the Earth, allowing us to detect tiny tremors in the most remote locations and potentially being able to save lives by detecting life-threatening disasters earlier. Both these works were performed in collaboration with a whole host of colleagues from Malta, Italy, Austria, and other countries, and saw the University of Malta collaborating with Melita Ltd and Enemalta plc.

 

You are also a board member of the Malta Chamber of Scientists. What are the Chamber’s main priorities at the moment? 

The Malta Chamber of Scientists (MCS) is a learned society and organization of professionals, academics, teachers and students involved in the field of science. The MCS strives to act as a focal point for making new contacts, as well as a hub for the discussion and exchange of innovative ideas. Its ultimate goals are to improve science awareness and develop informed opinions, increase student uptake of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) subjects for high-level jobs, and enhance the transferable skills of current researchers. As the MCS’ Science Policy Officer, one of my main duties is to guide policymakers on specific topics as well as on broader issues affecting the well-being and funding of scientific research in Malta. We are encouraging policymakers to revisit the importance being given to scientific research and funding in Malta. By way of example, in late 2016 we issued a green paper and an accompanying opinion piece on the Times of Malta. Our recommendations spanned four pillars: public engagement, education, research, and investment in the knowledge-based economy. There is still a lot of ground to be covered, but it is encouraging to see that the situation has developments in the right direction since we published the green paper.

 

What would you highlight as the main challenges and opportunities this sector is facing in Malta?

The chief concern of many scientists is funding. Malta under-invests in scientific funding: our goal for 2020 is to invest 2% of our GDP in research, development and innovation, but in 2017 Malta only invested 0.54%. Fundamental research, which seeks to increase knowledge for its own sake rather than for a specific application, and early-stage research, which may take several years to make it to market, are particularly affected since no local funding programme systematically targets them. Local funding available for PhD positions is also internationally uncompetitive. Fully funded PhD researchers on internationally funded projects and elsewhere in Europe are paid significantly higher salaries; the current situation does little to stem Malta’s brain drain. On a positive note, Malta’s boom in the financial, ICT, and other industries has resulted in an increasing demand for scientifically minded graduates. A greater appetite for science graduates and other incentives, such as a bonus in the monthly student stipend and several outreach activities, will hopefully translate to increasing student numbers in the coming years.


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What can be done to nurture school students’ passion in STEM subjects?

 We need to encourage students to stay curious. Our educational system traditionally does not foster an attitude of inquisitiveness, but science is all about asking questions and trying to figure out why something happens. Several initiatives have taken off the ground in recent years that are correcting this, including the wonderful Esplora centre as well as Science in the City, Malta’s science and art festival that is held in Valletta annually on the last Friday of September.

There are also other factors that discourage students from following their scientific passions. Very often mentors – teachers, guidance counsellors, and parents – are unaware of just how many doors are opened by a degree in science and end up encouraging children to opt for a supposedly “safer” choice. Over the last years, members of the Faculty of Science at the University of Malta have been visiting schools, showing students around their facilities and speaking at teachers’ career development seminars to correct this impression. The Faculty recently set up an outreach committee, the Students and Teachers Engaging and Educating with Research (STEER) initiative, and a course in Science for Education and Communication together with the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta. We are proud to have several success stories to talk about, with ex-students in all manner of professions from research in world-leading laboratories through to the banking and remote gaming industry. Our message is simple: a degree in science opens many doors, so students should feel free to follow their passion without having to worry about job prospects.

 

Many companies in Malta affirm that finding talent with the right skills remains one of the main challenges, and this applies to many sectors of the Maltese economy. In the scientific sector, how is this challenge being addressed?

There are two parts to our present strategy. The first is to ensure that the number of students reading for a degree in science increases. We do this by engaging in a significant amount of outreach, making sure that we reach all segments of society and potential students interested in all branches of science. We explain the benefits of reading for a science degree and how many careers are open to people with a scientific background.

The second is to ensure that our courses are aligned with the needs of industry. This is only possible up to a point, because a science degree must cover all the essentials of one or more subjects. However, we must make sure that the transferable skills our students learn during their course – computer programming, building models from data, public speaking, and so on – are kept relevant and up to date.

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