A study team led by Peter Tindemans (former Chair of the OECD Megascience Forum) and Luc Soete, Director of UNU-MERIT, a joint research and training centre of United Nations University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands) has proposed yet another structure for the European Institute of technology.

Originally proposed by Commission President José Manuel Barroso as part of the relaunched Lisbon Agenda, the aim of the EIT is to strengthen the European ‘knowledge-triangle’ of research, education and technology. The European Commission first expressed a preference for the EIT as a single institution. After a consultation of a wide range of stakeholders it proposed (pdf) a decentralised network structure in October 2006.

This EIT is organised around six Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). These KIC’s should be seen as joint-ventures of partner organisations representing universities, research organisations and businesses which are intended to form an integrated partnership in response to calls for proposals from the EIT.

Tindemans and Soete find that the decentralized EIT that has been proposed by the Commission is found to be not feasible. It is too dispersed; it would not increase significantly the research output in a field; it cannot match a top tier university in providing an environment for training graduates; and a dispersed institute cannot adequately organize technology transfer. Instead of the decentralised model, they propose a clustered model. One of the major implications seems to be that there will be multiple EITs and that they will be more geared towards the regional context.

While they acknowledge that the underlying rationale for setting up the EIT is critical, they caution against making blanket assumptions about Europe’s inability to convert knowledge into commerce, to organize critical mass, or to reward entrepreneurship and excellence in research and education. The study team cites evidence from the latest European Commission Innovation Scoreboard, which found that several of the smaller European countries and Germany perform significantly better than, or as well as the US and Japan (see below). Not all EU countries, regions and institutions have problems with converting knowledge into commerce and critical mass, rewarding entrepreneurship and excellence in research and education. The authors warn that ignoring this fact might result in assuming too easily that a European level institutional solution is necessary in cases where national or regional approaches might be more appropriate.

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The report proposes an alternative that does support existing local strongholds in research, education and innovation. This so-called Cluster EIT would see ambitious and successful regions and universities compete to create strong institutes of several hundred staff at or linked to a strong university, and working closely with industry on problems that determine long-term industrial development. In the case of the US such institutes too are concentrated around elite institutions such as Massachusetts, Stanford, Austin and San Diego.

Another interesting point made by Soete:

“Nobody in the US would think of establishing an AIT (American Institute of Technology) so if we think of creating a European Institute of Technology it should recognize the present strongholds in research, in graduate training and in innovation. Otherwise, it will represent little more than what the French call ‘un saupoudrage’ of undoubtedly substantial additional research monies but which spread over such a wide number of research centres will barely make an impact.”

In their report (pdf) they further explain their recommendation for a ‘cluster EIT’ and also provide the financial aspects of this organisational form (see also the news item from Euractive). I only had a quick look at the report but at first glance I think they make some good points. It seems that the role of the Commission would become more distant in this proposal, while the regions would become more involved in the development of the EITs. I wonder how the Commission will react to these suggestions. A public hearing on the EIT takes place in the European Parliament on 8 May this year.

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