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Scepticism greets EU plan for virtual institute

Boosting innovation will take serious cash, say critics.


Plans announced last week to create a European Institute of Technology (EIT) have received a lukewarm reception from the scientific community.

The new body is being touted as the European counterpart of the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It will aim to translate research into commercial opportunities and jobs. But many are sceptical about what the ‘virtual’ institution, which would consist of partnerships between academic and industry research groups across Europe, is likely to achieve.

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, outlined plans for the EIT on 22 February. He said it would be “a light and flexible organization” that will foster education, research and innovation in commercially promising fields of science. But he gave few details about how much the institute is likely to cost, or the research areas it will target.

A proposal to create a centre for the EIT in the European parliament building in Strasbourg was discarded, mainly because choosing a single site would have been interpreted as favouring a particular country or region. So the institute will be made up of partnerships in which members of research groups working on a particular area will spend time in each others' labs. If approved by the European Council later this month, the initiative could be up and running by 2010.

But scientists doubt that the proposed network will yield anything as efficient as MIT, with its annual budget of $2 billion. The proposed structure is scarcely different from research collaborations already funded by the European Union, says Renzo Rubele, a theoretical physicist at the University of Salerno in Italy, and a member of an expert group on university research. To make a real difference, he adds, would require a powerhouse like the particle-physics lab CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, where people and ideas are continuously exchanged.

Science managers are also unconvinced. “In principle, a European MIT would be a good thing. But at this stage it is an ill-prepared political rush job,” says Helga Nowotny, vice-president of the scientific council of the proposed European Research Council and former chair of the European Research Advisory Board. “What Europe really lacks in terms of innovation is sufficient venture capital for spin-off companies,” she says. “The EIT cannot solve that problem.”

Nowotny adds that although clusters of academic and industrial research work well at the regional level, she doesn't believe sending industry researchers to distant university labs will boost innovation. Barroso is confident that industry will take the bait, however. This could be crucial for the EIT, as it is still unclear how the institute will be financed.

Several European companies, including Pirelli and Nokia, have welcomed the idea, but have not specified what they might contribute. Help may also be on the way from across the Atlantic: Microsoft founder Bill Gates has signalled that his foundation intends to support the research flagship.

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