21 Nov Interview with Stavros Malas, President, The Cyprus Institute
BF: The Cyprus Institute is one of the world’s leading research and educational institutions, with a heavy focus on new technologies and sciences. What are some of the key strengths of Cyprus’ tertiary education sector, and how does The Cyprus Institute contribute to putting the sector on the international map?
Stavros Malas: While the research and higher education sector in Cyprus began 33 years ago, it only began to contribute to the national economy in the last 20 years. By any standards, we have a very juvenile system of education and research. Despite that, the performance of our universities and research institutions has escalated in an exponential way and some of our universities are now ranked in the top 500 universities of the world. This means we must have done something well, with the key being excellence. We have three public and nine private universities, as well as three independent research institutions: The Cyprus Institute, the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics and the Agricultural Research Institute – that is the whole research ecosystem in Cyprus.We have some small centers of excellence associated with universities and institutes, but they are still young.
EU metrics show that Cyprus is performing really well in completive research and ranks first among all EU countries in securing EU research grants. Cyprus’ education and research sector accounts for 8% of the GDP. On the down side, we still have some way to go in investing in research from domestic funds. We are below the EU average in that regard, but Cypriot researchers are the best performers in the EU funding because they propose excellent projects. Cypriot institutions rank first in regard to funding from the European Commission: for every euro that we put into the research budget, Cyprus now gets back about four euros, which is an excellent performance.
Nevertheless, we need a more sustainable system for funding research. Funding policies are implemented into two basic pillars: one is institutional funding, e.g., what the state is funding and the other is competitive funding. The state needs to increase its own institutional funding and allow the competitive funding from the European Commission to be supplementary. If you strike a good balance between the two, then you have a very good, successful research ecosystem. Germany, the UK and Sweden all have a very good balance between their state and competitive funding. In Cyprus, we have an imbalance. We rely more on competitive funding and less on state funding, which is problematic. We need to improve that. The new government has made some announcements towards funding, so hopefully we will see some positive developments.
BF: Delving a little bit into the Cyprus Institute, please give us a brief overview of the main educational programs that you offer. What’s unique about them?
Stavros Malas: The Cyprus Institute is among the few institutions around the world that offers post-graduate education only, we don’t offer undergraduate training at all. It is primarily a research-intensive institution in areas such as environmental sciences, climate prediction, computational sciences, high performance computing to solve many problems through big data analysis, material science, climate change, renewable energy and so on. We also have a strong program of cultural heritage where we utilize technology to answer questions about our past, not from the traditional archeological viewpoint, but the perspective of material science. The institute is an integrated ecosystem of technologies, the MIT of the region as we call it.
BF: While education is one facet of The Cyprus Institute, research remains a top priority. The institute is divided into five different research centers, with the latest – the Science and Technology Driven Policy and Innovation Research Center – starting operation in the 2022/23 academic year. Please describe the school’s various research centers, their key focuses and highlight some of the big successes that you have had recently?
Stavros Malas: As you say, we have five research centers. Our Center for Computational Sciences addresses questions from material science to fundamental physics, big data science and machine learning. It also develops solutions for companies that need to use computational sciences to advance their products. Computational science has an endless spectrum of applications. We have another center that deals primarily with energy and is looking at energy conservation, the structure of buildings and how they should be engineered to be more energy efficient. It is also looking at renewable energy: we have a unique research facility off-site which uses solar technology to generate heat that is then converted to electricity. Known as concentrated solar power, this technology is complementary to photovoltaics. We have a center studying cultural heritage, using a range of material technologies to answer questions of the past. Meanwhile, our flagship center specializes in atmospheric sciences and climate change predictions. We use measurements of the environment and the atmosphere to predict climate change. The institute is known for its report, published two years ago, on the impact of regional climate change. Cyprus is a hotspot of climate change. By the end of the century, we will have a rise of about one meter in sea levels that will have a massive impact on the environment. There will also be an increase in temperature. This institute has made a massive impact in predicting climate change and developed various scenarios, not just for Cyprus, but for the region.
BF: The Cyprus Institute is also heavily involved in supporting entrepreneurship and SMEs through your Office for Innovation and Entrepreneurship that was set up in 2019. What initiatives do you offer to promote spin-offs and create new SMEs in technology and science?
Stavros Malas: By virtue of its legal operational framework, the Cyprus Institute has the versatility to develop its intellectual property policy (IP) and establish spin-offs if need be. The Institute has so far launched seven spin-offs, and we have several patents already filed. Yet, the road to success is treacherous. Generally, for every 100 spin-offs generated, only five will probably succeed. We also leverage research carried out by companies through the facilitation of access to our facilities; companies can come and use our infrastructures to develop better products. The role of research institutions is to generate ideas and spin-offs and give them to the economy so that somebody else can take the risk and, if successful, to make money.
BF: What is your assessment of the level of support given to start-ups and SMEs in Cyprus? What more could be done to help them get off the ground and bring positive contributions to the economy?
Stavros Malas: We have some very good SMEs, including research-intensive ones. In fact, these research-intensive SMEs – which belong to the Cyprus Association of Research and Innovation Enterprises (CARIE) – have attracted the same amount of money from the European Commission as public universities, for their own research and product development. As a next step, the institute is working to bring these SMEs very close to a highly productive research-intensive environment like that of The Cyprus Institute, so they can access expensive infrastructure they cannot generate themselves. The synergy between a research institution like The Cyprus Institute and research-intensive SMEs is the best way to leverage the ideas coming from companies, and harness the potential generated by having access to the infrastructure to make more and more innovative products.
BF: Your institute is extremely well connected internationally through solid partnerships with other leading universities, including MIT, the University of Illinois, Max Planck Institute of Chemistry and other science-based universities in France and Germany. What synergies are you looking for internationally, especially in the US? How are these partnerships contributing to your growth and agility?
Stavros Malas: All our research-intensive centers have been established through partnerships with individual institutions which are renowned in the areas where we want to engage. For instance, we twinned with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois to launch our Computational Sciences Center. All our centers have their counterpart in the US or Europe. These are very well-known institutions. We established these partnerships for every center to facilitate the introduction of excellence in our institute. This has paid off, because the Institute is now the best in Cyprus in terms of competitiveness in research funding as we have maintained a very high standard of research quality. At the same time, the institute is the best regional ambassador of Cyprus; we are very well known thanks to our excellence and because we select areas of research that are highly relevant to the Eastern Mediterranean region, such as climate change, cultural heritage and energy.
BF: We have seen in past year new advances in the realm of big data, AI, fintech, smart machinery and so on. What kind of new digital tools is The Cyprus Institute utilizing in its own educational and research activities, and trying to promote and develop through its research?
Stavros Malas: Most of our students and researchers use high performance computing to answer a range of scientific questions. We also have a range of high-tech analytical tools in energy, material science, geophysics and imaging that complement data acquisition. The institute also has a very successful PhD program, whose success is based on the interdisciplinarity of its program. Students learn many techniques and use lots of tools in their research. We take care of our students and their well-being. They are paid well. Recently we improved this. Thus, if you want to benefit from an exceptional education and get paid well, this is the place. It compares extremely favorably with any center in the US and Europe. We pay our students handsomely so they can come here and devote themselves to education. That’s our selling point.
BF: You became President of the Cyprus Institute in February 2023 and have worked extensively on developing transgenic animal models, stem cell biology and molecular genetics. You’ve also held positions in the public sector, including as Minister of Health. What are your top priorities and what would you like to achieve?
Stavros Malas: My main task is to consolidate all the activities of The Cyprus Institute and support home grown talent. Like football, it’s best to grow a team by supporing the talent you produce. Secondly, I want to build very strong industrial connections. Any research-intensive institution funded by the public has the obligation to bring in companies and create this synergy, creating a research hub between academics and private entities. My third priority is to open new areas of research. We are now submitting a proposal to the EU to establish a new center specializing in smart livestock farming. This is badly needed as our dairy industry is the second largest exporter, but research in the farming industry supplying the milk is very rudimentary. We see an opportunity here for the institute.
BF: What is your final message to readers of USA Today?
Stavros Malas: Having gone through an ill-thought economic model and relying heavily on money supply after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Cyprus is now moving into a more viable model, building strongly on innovation and research, which are key to the development of the new model. In parallel, Cyprus offers unique tax incentives for companies utilizing IP to set up commercial activities. Our education and research environment thrives with excellence.
From a macro-economic perspective, Cyprus went through a massive economic transformation. In the 1980s/1990s, the country had no educational and research capacity but was self-sufficient in its primary and secondary sector. When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of money came and the banking sector grew massively until it reached nine times the size of the economy. When you put a disproportionately large amount of banked money into a small economy, you create what is called “the supply-induced demand for money” and a bubble. The money was not used properly. It was invested in areas that were vulnerable to external factors. When the crisis came, all this money given out by the banks could not be paid back. Today, the banking sector is recovering because the banks sold all the non-performing loans to asset management companies. People no longer owe money to the bank, but to an asset management company. The banking sector is still large and needs to find new places to invest. Where? Areas that have strong innovation provide such opportunities.