When the European Parliament approved the controversial European Institute of Innovation and Technology on 11 March, one dissenting parliamentarian complained that the “initiative has degenerated into a farce”. He judged it “poorly defined and under-funded”. He was right.

The original 2005 concept was to recreate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Europe, where research in academic institutions fails to transfer to industry efficiently. But as few believed that such an institute could be created in a top-down fashion, and European Union (EU) member states were unwilling to provide major institutional investment, the 'EIT' concept evolved into just a small headquarters. This will select and administer distributed networks of academic institutes and private companies focusing on problems considered most pressing in Europe, such as renewable energy. In the same stroke, the European Parliament inserted the word 'innovation' into the EIT's name, although the original acronym lives on.

The result is an enfeebled EIT that is mismatched with the problems it is designed to solve. The EU has set aside just €300 million (US$475 million) for it in the first six years, a fraction of the minimum of €2.3 billion considered necessary to fulfil the EIT's purpose. It is relying on industry and other sources to make up the difference.

That seems unlikely. But whatever the outcome, the very existence of the EIT concept — and its survival through the rough seas of EU politics — is an indictment of Europe's suffocating national bureaucracies, which have made it impossible for universities and publicly funded research institutes to evolve into MITs on their own. 'Elite' has too often been treated as a dirty word, and interactions with industry considered a betrayal of academic purity. In many countries, including France, Germany and Italy, it is still generally impossible to offer internationally competitive packages to top researchers.

But a belated recognition of the need for change is now taking hold. Important steps have been taken in most countries to develop appropriate legal frameworks and infrastructures for technology transfer. In 2003, both Germany and Italy suggested founding their own 'MITs' — precipitating the same political furore seen later when the EIT was proposed. The Italian Institute of Technology was finally realized in Genoa. In Germany, the idea was quickly abandoned in favour of a plan to encourage existing universities to excel in an MIT-like way. Its competition to award winners the 'élite' title has been a success.

The EIT may yet surprise its critics. Either way, national efforts to boost universities are by far the best way to address the problems that the EIT is intended to solve.