EU flagship gets true Brit

Europe's lacklustre institute needs to up its game, says new board appointee Julia King. Zoe Corbyn hears how

August 21, 2008

Julia King, the newest board member of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), is determined to improve its image.

An editorial in Nature in March argued that the body, which was originally conceived as a European rival to the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was poorly defined and underfunded. "National efforts to boost universities are by far the best way to address the problems that the EIT is intended to solve," it said.

"Clearly, one of the challenges we have is to build up the reputation of the EIT," said Professor King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, who was appointed in July to the governing board. The role will see her involved in direction-setting for the European Union's new flagship innovation institute, as well as old-fashioned promotion.

Officially approved in March with a public budget of about £240 million (EUR308.7 million), the EIT is set to be launched formally this autumn in Budapest, the site of its administrative headquarters.

Professor King is the only British member of the 18-strong board and an important link for UK academics and businesses seeking to engage with the project.

"I am there in my own right with my own experience to help (the EIT) make the right decisions, but of course I will want to be making sure that the British university and industry community is aware. (I want to help) make sure the UK does participate properly in it," she said, adding that she has received offers of help in disseminating her work from both the Royal Society of Engineering and Universities UK.

A former principal of Imperial College's engineering faculty, Professor King currently sits on the Technology Strategy Board, the board of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the UK's climate change committee.

The idea behind the EIT, explains Professor King, is to stimulate the economy in Europe by linking higher education, research and business innovation. The EIT will establish knowledge transfer and innovation communities (KICs) - partnerships of universities and businesses throughout Europe with a remit to educate, conduct research and apply the outcomes to commercial ends.

"Some (KICs) will be physical and some virtual ... we are waiting to see what people propose," she said, adding that feedback from British universities suggests they are already talking to continental colleagues about pulling together teams to bid to become KICs.

"Now that it is known to be happening, people are keen not to miss out on it."

The emphasis of the KICs - which she admits is a "horrible, horrible" name - will be very much "people focused". "It is about providing the skilled workforce and the research workforce who can then work on the next generations of more innovative products," Professor King said.

One of the first tasks of the board, whose inaugural meeting is scheduled for mid-September, will be to specify the fields in which the KICs will operate.

"There are suggestions such as climate change and renewable energy and ... I would be very surprised if those didn't come out as being some of the absolutely top ones," she added.

The KICs will receive EIT funding, but will also be expected to raise a significant financial contribution from other sources, especially the private sector, and from income generated by their own activities. An EIT foundation will be set up to manage philanthropic donations. More controversially, the KICs can also apply for project funding through the European framework programme.

Qualifications that come out of KICs are expected to have an EIT badge on them. "We need to make sure it becomes a badge people want to have," said Professor King.

Taking a wider view, she acknowledges that UK academics do well at attracting European funding, but thinks the British research community and businesses must do more to engage with continental Europe.

"(The research community here) does need to try a bit harder and we do need an extra push because there is that barrier that we are not actually attached to the rest of Europe. It is (also) almost harder for us because we have this very good track record of our own and we have had big increases in government funding coming into academic research over the past ten years."

"But actually, that funding is sort of flattening off in the future, so I think we are going to have to start looking again and refocusing on where the opportunities are."

The EIT, then, should be one to watch.

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