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A European MIT?

EU proposal to found a European institute of technology gets thumbs down from advisors

By | May 6, 2005

Key scientific advisors to the European Union have warned that a proposal by the European Commission to create a European institute of technology (EIT) modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will not work.

In a report sent this week to the EU Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB), which advises the commission on science policy, said that a "top down" approach to creating such an institute was not viable.

Helga Nowotny, the chairman of the 45-member EURAB, told The Scientist that an MIT-style high-tech institute "must emerge from the scientific communities themselves," noting that MIT's reputation had grown over decades.

"Politicians do not have a good record in creating top-down institutions, especially not when it comes to research and teaching. Politicians are indispensable, however, and, equally important, responsible for creating the environment in which universities can expand and grow in the desired direction," she said.

Nevertheless, Nowotny spoke strongly in favor of creating high-tech institutes across the continent. "Europe does not need only one, but ideally many institutions like an EIT. The two already existing ones that can be compared to the US model… are Imperial College and ETH Zurich [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology]. We would like to see more of their kind emerge throughout Europe," she said.

"Compared with the US, European universities do not offer the same optimal working conditions, do not contribute as much as their US counterparts to establish closer cooperation with industry, etc., thereby creating the European paradox—that is, many good ideas and discoveries, but a poor record in exploiting them commercially."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso floated the idea of creating a MIT-style institute in February. Potocnik and Education Commissioner Jan Figel are currently hammering out detailed plans for the new high-tech institution. Under one proposal favored by Potocnik, the EIT would be a network institution involving six of the best universities in the European Union.

The universities reported to be interested in joining an EIT network are Cambridge, Edinburgh, ETH Zurich, Heidelberg, Imperial College London, Karolinska Institute Stockholm, Leiden, Leuven, Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, Munich, Manchester, and University College London, according to a report in the Financial Times.

But Nowotny criticized a centralized approach to selecting the universities that would participate in an EIT. "[EURAB] are not against networks of universities," she said. "We think it is problematic, however, for the commission to designate top down which are the 'excellent' universities in Europe that will receive extra funding for their network. Such a scheme should be set up, with clear criteria and with the possibility for others to join or set up their own network."

In addition, Nowotny warned that the plans for the EIT could undermine preparations for the European Research Council (ERC), strongly backed in Europe's scientific community. "We are very much concerned that the current discussion about an EIT will distract from the truly innovative policy of the commission funding basic research for the first time, called 'frontier research' through an ERC and that it might also divert funding," she said.

Peter Frank, General Secretary of ScanBalt, a biotechnology network organized around the Scandinavian region, told The Scientist that he would favor an approach that involved building an institute on existing networks. "In principle, it is difficult to create a new initiative top down if you do not take into consideration the existing institutes and their competencies," he said.

"There are many ways to organize ourselves in Europe. To use six universities based in various parts of Europe is one way to do things, and if it ensures stable coordination and dialogue between the institutes, there could be synergies and benefits to be obtained," he said.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences