Have the grandiose plans for a European Institute of Technology been stripped bare?

eit.jpgLate last week the European Commission (EC) moved one step closer to the establishment of a European Institute of Technology (EIT). It also announced the creation of four innovative public-private partnerships, or Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI), in the field of technology as part of their strategy to “bridge the competitive gap” between the EU and their economic rivals, the US and Japan.

The idea of the EIT was first mooted in a proposal by the European Commission (EC) to the European Council in February 2006. It was intended to be a flagship research university for excellence in higher education to rival the USA’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As the press release of that period put it:

‘’Excellence needs flagships: that’s why Europe must have a strong European Institute of Technology, bringing together the best brains and companies and disseminating the results throughout Europe’’ said José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. ‘’The EIT will be a light and flexible organisation”, stressed President Barroso. ‘’It will teach graduates and doctoral candidates, carry out research and be active in innovation, both in some strategic thematic areas and in the field of science and innovation management’’.

“If Europe is to remain competitive, then we must ensure that we improve the relationship between education, research and innovation,” said Ján Figel’, European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture, and Multilingualism. “It is a common perception that in Europe, this relationship does not work as well as it could. Europe consistently falls short in turning R&D results into commercial opportunities, innovations and jobs.

This grand plan would thus combine world-class education, research and deep engagement in effective innovation processes. Numerous reactions to the idea of the EIT have emerged since then, some supportive and some critical, with expected concern from European universities that the EIT would drain resources from existing research budgets.

Eighteen months on, and it would seem that the proposal for a two-level structure combining both a bottom-up (universities and researchers in Member States) and top-down (Governing Board) located in a grand building (location to be decided) has been abandoned as too difficult to negotiate. Instead, the Commission has ended up with a stripped down version which some commentators argue is nothing more than a university joint venture modeled on the Networks of Excellence (NE) that are part of the Framework 6 and 7 architecture. More widely this could be viewed as a typical outcome of the EC’s adventures; grand plans that member states and the private sector are unwilling to finance – with the 4.5 billion euro Galileo positioning system meant to rival the US system as another troubled example. This said the EIT is being funded for a solid six years as of 1 January 2008, and to the tune of EUR 308.7 million in total.

The fate of the EIT should be seen within a framework of competing interests between the European Union and Member States; of concentrating the best resources of Member States in one location that is governed at the European scale, versus allowing Member States to strategically harness and govern their own resources for economic competitiveness with some gesturing to Europe. According to Maria van der Hoeven, the Dutch Minister for Economic Affairs:

We shouldn’t create a situation where we take all the knowledge out of the universities and bring it together in one spot, to the effect that you drain the national universities.

While the EC argues that currently research and development is far too fragmented across Europe, that there are not sufficient numbers of high class researchers (they point to the weaker performance of Europe in relation to science citations, Nobel Prize winners and the numbers of European universities in the top 100 universities rankings), private enterprise does not invest sufficiently in research and education, and talented European graduates leave to take up posts in the US.

The four JTIs link the public and the private sectors – approving research initiatives worth 9.3 billion euros: nano-electronic technologies (3 billion), computing systems (2.7 billion), innovative medicines (2 billion), and airplanes and air transport (1.6 billion). These public private partnerships are intended to help the EU raise R&D spending to 3% of GDP (from 1.8% currently) – one of the Lisbon objectives. The EU is also hoping to overcome the stagnation in R&D spending which has resulted in the EU trailing the US for most of the decade. According to the President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, “Europe is too slow to turn cutting edge technologies into marketable goods”. EU Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik dismissed suggestions that the four JTIs would run into similar problems that faced the Galileo satellite system where the companies and member states balked at the levels of investment being demanded by the EU. For the JTIs the private sector is expected to commit upwards of 60%, with national governments combining with the EU to contribute the other 40% in all but the medicines and aircraft programs (where the 40% contribution would come entirely from the EU).

These two initiatives – the EIT and the four JTIs – reflect the challenges facing Europe in its ambition to become a globally competitive knowledge-based economy. Institutions like the European Commission are viewed as vehicles to enhance research capacity at the European level yet they are also critiqued for both the content of their initiatives and their legitimacy in claiming some governance over higher education. In response the European Commission is pushing forward, albeit in a halting way. It is also concurrently seeking to learn from other spaces of knowledge production as we noted in our recent entry on the EC’s interest in the role of technology transfer offices in underlying the recent stem cell research breakthrough. The Commission is also eager to learn more about the nature of collaboration, distributed knowledge, and geographically fragmented research networks. Thus this news item about the EIT needs to be placed in the context of a search for new knowledge/spaces in both a regionalizing and a globalizing era.

Susan Robertson and Kris Olds

Update:

EU capitals start bidding for European technology institute – 12.12.2007 – 09:23
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With the European Union next year set to launch its Institute of Innovation and Technology, some EU capitals have already started their bids to house the institute.

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