EU plans institute to rival MIT

Science groups and universities aren't convinced by need for a European Institute of Technology

By | February 22, 2006

The European Commission said on Wednesday that it would push ahead with plans to establish a new flagship European Institute of Technology (EIT), despite widespread opposition from within the academic community. At a press conference in Brussels, commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said that an EIT would be "a great, inspiring project for the European Union," which would attract the best minds, ideas and companies from around the world. Barroso first proposed the idea of an EIT in February last year, and since then the Commission has consulted experts and the general public about the concept. Now that process is over, the Commission said today that it had decided to recommend that the European Union (EU) establish it. The new institute would allow resources and talent that exist across the EU to be pooled, according to European Commissioner for Education Jan Figel. Figel said at the press conference that it would also offer EU companies a place to spend their research and development funds, plus become a center for excellence in interdisciplinary fields. "If Europe is to remain competitive, then we must ensure that we improve the relationship between education, research and innovation," Figel said. "Europe consistently falls short in turning R&D results into commercial opportunities, innovations and jobs." But many in the academic world are not convinced a new institute is the best way to foster research. Universities UK, for example, an umbrella group for higher education institutes has "quite a strong view on it," a spokesman told The Scientist. Drummond Bone, the president of the group, said in a statement that the current EIT proposals were poorly thought-out and inappropriate. They did not, he said, take into account the realities of cross-border research and interaction with business. "Looking across the Atlantic to MIT and trying to engineer it in Europe, which in effect is what the Commission has done, is simplistic in the extreme," he said. "Unless we see changes to these plans, European research could be lumbered with a costly white elephant." Earlier this week, the chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, told the Financial Times that the institute would be a waste of EU funds, arguing that it would divert scarce resources away from existing centers. Jean-Patrick Connerade, president of Euroscience, said he wasn't sure establishing an entirely new institute was the right way to go, either. "The basic feeling is that we already have a lot of excellent institutions in Europe," he told The Scientist. Developing links between the existing institutions across Europe may be a good approach, he said, but the EU wasn't well placed to carry out such a task itself. Similar sentiments were expressed last year by the European Research Advisory Body (EURAB). In a statement at the time, EURAB said that money spent on the EIT would be better directed toward the new European Research Council. "An ideal MIT-like institution cannot be created top-down," EURAB members said. The Commission's vision for the EIT includes two levels of structure--a governing board with a small supporting administration and a set of so-called "knowledge communities," distributed across Europe. Those knowledge communities will bring together teams from universities, research centers and companies throughout Europe, according to the EU plan. Their human and physical resources will become legally part of the EIT, ceasing to be part of their home institution for a given period of time. How large the institute would be, or where it would be based it is too soon to say, according to the commission. Barroso and his commissioners will present its proposal to representatives of EU member countries at the next meeting of the European Council. An optimistic timetable would see the governing board of the EIT appointed in 2009 and the first major expenditures in 2010. Stephen Pincock Links within this article J. Burgermeister, "A European MIT?" The Scientist, May 6, 2005. "European Institute of Technology: the Commission proposes a new flagship for excellence," February 22, 2006. "EURAB recommendation on the proposed European Institute of Technology," April 7, 2005. X. Bosch, "Concern over ERC funding," The Scientist, July 26, 2005.

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