"European MIT" Dismissed Again

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

A new study commissioned by the European Parliament deals another blow to the proposed European Institute of Technology (EIT), a top-tier institute aimed at helping Europe stay ahead in the global technology race. The study concludes that the current plan for a virtual institute is "not feasible" and lacks solid funding; it suggests setting up a completely different structure instead.

First proposed in 2005 by the European Commission and widely considered a pet project of Commission president José Manuel Barroso, EIT has received a lukewarm reception from the beginning. Like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), EIT is supposed to carry out top-notch research, help translate science into marketable products--a persistent weakness in Europe--and train the very best graduate students from across the continent. But the European Research Advisory Board warned that an MIT-style institute cannot be created top-down (Science, 6 May 2005, p. 774). In addition, the corporate world has so far failed to offer the substantial financial support the Commission is hoping for, and members of the European Parliament have been skeptical of the plan.

Making matters worse, E.U. member states last year rejected the idea of an EIT as a single institute located in one country. In response, the Commisison's latest proposal, issued in November 2006, envisions a € 2.4 billion "virtual" institute, consisting of small central headquarters and six or more "Knowledge and Innovation Communities"--networks of researchers working on the same topic at institutes from Aberdeen to Athens.

As some scientists have pointed out, that's exactly what MIT is not. And it's a recipe for failure, according to the study team, led by Peter Tindemans, a former chair of the OECD's Megascience Forum, and Luc Soete, who leads UNU-MERIT, a joint research and training centre of United Nations University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Dispersed networks are unlikely to help technology transfer, which benefits from top researchers huddling together, the study says; nor would they create the stimulating environment for research and graduate training that excellent universities can offer. Moreover, the Commission has yet to find a stable source of funding for its plans, the authors say.

The report proposes an alternative, in which there would be multiple smaller EITs, each located in a single place, focused on a specific field, and based at, or linked to, a strong university. These mini-EITs would be similar to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory or the Scripps Institute, the researchers say.

A spokesperson for Education Commissioner Ján Figel' says the Commission has yet to study the report but adds that it remains optimistic that, with some compromises, the current plan can go forward. The Commission is currently trying to work out a solution with the German government (which holds the rotating European presidency), he says. The European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, which requested the study, will hold its next hearing on the EIT in May.

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