By Craig Winneker : 06 Jun 2006
"A timely political scandal may provide an unexpected boost to an idea that has so far attracted little enthusiasm: a European version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Proponents of a new EU academic research Mecca -- chief among them is the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso -- believe a new "European Institute of Technology" will help improve the climate for innovation on the continent and plug up the brain drain that has let its brightest young scientific minds flow to America. This, in turn, will spur ailing economies and help the EU fulfill its goal of becoming the world's most dynamic knowledge based economy by 2010.
Sounds nifty. But so far, the idea's most attractive selling point is not the school itself nor even the promise of a brighter, more technologically advanced economic future. It's the place where the campus could be located: the current home of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
"Will Strasbourg become Sciencebourg?" reads a recent headline in European Voice, the Brussels insider weekly. Probably not -- and not just because the name would be a sure-fire tourism turn-off. But the news that the quaint Alsatian capital has been overcharging its EU tenants millions of euro in rent on some of the parliamentary facilities has intensified longstanding calls for the assembly to stop making its monthly sojourns there.
This, in turn, has helped move the EIT idea from the back burner, where it had been placed soon after its February debut, to somewhere in the middle of the stove.
Parliamentary reformers pounced on the scandal revelations to renew their longstanding call to end the ridiculous trips to Strasbourg, which cost EU taxpayers hundreds of millions of euro every year (even before the rent gouging was factored in).
"The money saved by putting an end to the travelling circus -- almost €200 million per year -- would be well invested in Europe's future," said Alexander Alvaro, a member of the European Parliament who leads the reform faction. "When we think of the best universities, with the best facilities in the world -- we should think of a university in the heart of Europe: the European Institute of Technology."
Those are nice thoughts -- and the Strasbourg angle is a sexy selling point. But what about the idea itself: Is the EIT really the way to grow a new class of innovators in Europe?
There's no doubt something needs to be done. If its Lisbon agenda to create the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy were a sort of ten-year doctorate in political economy, the EU would have already failed its midterms and be on its way to a final exam flameout.
So, like a student cramming desperately before a crucial test, Barroso hatched the EIT proposal and, to be fair, it's not a bad one. Even in Europe, few argue against the importance of innovation, and politicians always like to say they're spending money on "improving education."
But it's an idea that, to quote a university report card, "needs improvement". Even though it's being pitched as Europe's answer to MIT, the Barroso proposal does not actually envision a single home for the institution, even if it does set up shop in the Parliament (which will depend on France agreeing to end the Strasbourg sessions -- a long-shot). Rather it will be a virtual campus, a loose affiliation of existing academic institutions across Europe. "Light and flexible," Barroso calls it.
There is something so naïve -- college-freshman naïve -- about thinking it's possible to just conjure up a research institution of the caliber of MIT or Stanford or even Ball State. These fine institutions did not just appear out of the sky, fully formed and preheated for instant success, like, say, the iPod or Jessica Simpson. They grew over decades and even centuries. Some government prodding helped them along but mostly they built reputations for research and innovation the old-fashioned way: they were endowed it.
Then there is the electorate -- sorry, the student body. If European students want to be as successful as their American (or Asian) counterparts, they wouldn't have spent spring break on the streets of Paris dodging tear gas canisters, singing the Internationale and demanding that their first job after graduation be guaranteed for life. They'd have been doing beer bongs in Daytona (or would have long ago dropped out of college to develop the Next Big Thing).
Europe has had mixed success trying to foster innovation through central planning diktat. Consider its efforts to create a European technology cluster à la Silicon Valley. Most feature clever names that play on the original idea (just as EIT echoes MIT): Silicon Glen is in Scotland, Silicon Fen in England, and the Côte du Silicon in the South of France.
But aside from Silicon Fen, home to hundreds of small companies clustered around Cambridge University, few world-shaking innovations have come from these places. (The popular wireless technology Bluetooth is a product of Silicon Fen.) Those that have succeeded have done so because they have been allowed access to venture capital and are largely the result of private initiative, developing organically rather than through what Europe likes to call "Research Framework Programmes."
Still, it's fun to daydream about EIT. What courses would it offer? International Business Management at the Jacques Chirac School of Unilingualism? Diplomacy 101 in the Philippe Douste-Blazy School of History, named for the French foreign minister who recently expressed surprise that the Nazis hadn't occupied Great Britain, and who has confused Taiwan with Thailand and Kosovo with Croatia? Or perhaps Innovation as Imitation, a course examining such me-too European research projects as the Galileo satellite network and the French version of Google.
Maybe that's the problem in the first place. The EIT sounds like a great idea but it's really just another half-hearted rip-off. Whether or not Strasbourg is still Strasbourg, by the time Europe gets around to approving Barroso's plan, MIT -- and the rest of the world, for that matter -- will have moved on to something else."
Craig Winneker is TCS Daily's Europe editor.
O artigo acima vem no TCS Daily
European Institute of Technology: The Commission proposes a new flagship for excellenceThe Commission is proposing to the European Council to set up a European Institute of Technology (EIT) intended to be a new flagship for excellence in higher education, research and innovation. In a Communication adopted today, the Commission defined the key elements of the proposal for a EIT – originally put forward in 2005 as part of the revamp of the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs - which is now ready for consideration by the Heads of State and government. The Commission has based its work on the results of a wide public consultation collecting more than 700 contributions.