MIT-Dublin deal branded 'naive'

January 7, 2000

The Irish government has beaten competition from several countries and has convinced Massachusetts Institute of Technology to set up its planned MediaLabEurope in Dublin - but not everyone is happy with the announcement.

The government has agreed to give E35 million (Pounds 22 million) towards the setting-up of the institute. It will be run along the same lines as the MediaLab at MIT.

The deal was announced by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern following negotiations with lab director Nicholas Negroponte, a pioneer in computer-aided design. The intention is that the lab, which will be at the heart of a new multimedia village, will grow to have 250 academic staff and students. Its mission will be to "invent the future" through research.

Many Irish academics have welcomed the project, but Gerry Wrixon, president of University College Cork, said he believed it could undermine Irish institutions by siphoning off good-quality staff and postgraduate students.

He said: "I feel it would be quite naive of us to think that any real transfer of knowledge from the United States to Ireland can happen under a scheme like this. Many Irish university staff have been educated and have experience of working in the best US universities.

"It would be much more effective to use money earmarked for the MediaLab to provide the opportunity for these people to work together to create the kind of environment and facilities that it is proposed to establish via MediaLab. Were the money to be spent in this way, it would have the added advantage that the knowledge, facilities and structures so created would have firm roots in Ireland."

Professor Wrixon, a Berkeley graduate, founded the National Microelectronics Research Centre in Cork, which now employs more than 250 scientists and engineers. He said the three universities in Dublin had also developed considerable research expertise in the areas in which MediaLabEurope would work.

He suggested the proposal was based on an unsophisticated analysis of research and development. Irish universities had shown they were capable of world-class research. Until recently, they were relatively underfunded by successive governments, but had been successful in the various competitive research programmes of the European Union.

"I think it is neither realistic nor indeed feasible that we should use taxpayers' funds to attract Nobel prizewinners here, around whom we would endeavour to build world-class centres of excellence with hundreds of professionals," said Professor Wrixon.

He is convinced that Irish universities contain scientists and technologists of sufficient expertise, credibility and leadership, around whom centres in strategically important science and technology could be grown organically.

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