Brussels, 24 Jan 2006
'The European Institute of Technology [EIT] is supposed to be a mantra for achieving the Lisbon goals,' said German MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, opening a seminar assessing the need for an EIT in the European Parliament on 23 January.
Most of those present were in agreement on what an EIT could do for Europe, although some questioned the necessity and feasibility of setting up a new organisation. Even those in favour of an EIT had very different views on how the eventual institute should look.
Mr Chatzimarkakis reminded participants of Europe's weak research and innovation performance in comparison to that of the US in particular, using the low number of European publications and citations to debunk the 'myth of European leadership in science'. He then painted the EIT as the answer to many of these weaknesses, describing it as a 'European portal to innovation'.
His view of the EIT is an institute that would focus on innovation, and would create a bridge between two mentalities - those of the researcher and the entrepreneur; stimulate research and development (R&D) and technology transfer; strengthen the participation of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the EU's research framework programmes; and create a strong link between the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP). The link has been explained, but there are still 'grey areas', said the MEP.
The EIT could be a seat for the executive agencies of CIP, as well as a seat for all Technology Platforms and Integrated Projects so that synergies could be created between all of the EU's research activities, said Mr Chatzimarkakis. It could also have a special envoy for SMEs and a centre supervising SME-oriented aspects of FP7, he continued.
Mr Chatzimarkakis also sees the EIT bringing together Technology Platforms, becoming a body that universities turn to when looking for partners in industry, and becoming the point of reference for European research and innovation.
Finally, an EIT would also create a 'label' that would brand European innovation, thus giving it more visibility, and would be a catalyst for the 'Lisbonisation' of the EU budget, said the MEP.
Mr Chatzimarkakis has high hopes for the EIT and sees a role for it in all aspects of European research and innovation. In contrast, Jan van den Biesen, speaking on behalf of Philips Research, doubted the need and feasibility of a European Institute of Technology, saying that Europe already has a number of strong universities and research institutes. He bemoaned the fact that during a recent Commission consultation, stakeholders had not had the opportunity to say 'no', but had instead been required to describe how the eventual EIT should look.
Accepting that the idea is therefore likely to go ahead, Mr van den Biesen emphasised the importance of the EIT conforming to the notion of 'open innovation', whereby companies are able to take advantage of ideas developed elsewhere, but also allow others to do the same with their ideas developed in-house but not being used in-house.
In terms of its physical organisation, the EIT should be a network, even if a physical hub is needed, he said.
Mr van den Biesen also gave an account of the current views of UNICE, a union representing European industry. The UNICE position is one of 'wait and see', with most members waiting to see a Commission proposal before they form an opinion. UNICE is in favour of strengthening European research and innovation, emphasised Mr van den Biesen, but is not sure that the EIT is the right way to do this. The union is already clear, however, that the EIT alone will not provide a solution to Europe's problems. If it is created, it must be done so in conjunction with other initiatives to establish favourable market conditions and strengthen research-industry links, he said.
A practical view was given by Horst Soboll, the vice chair of the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB). Many reservations have been voiced, he said: Is the top-down approach right? Will the EIT take money away from somewhere else? Will it detract from other initiatives? Do we really need such a single, new entity?
'It's very easy to be negative,' he continued. 'Let's try to be a little more constructive. What can be done? If the President of the Commission [José Manuel Barroso, who proposed the creation of an EIT] expresses an interest in research and innovation, then it's an excellent opportunity,' said Mr Soboll.
Mr Soboll called for all interested parties to work together to sift through the various views on how the EIT should work, and suggested that a starting point could be specific fields of scientific research. Indeed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the model for many EIT proponents, did just this 150 years ago.
It is not only the Commission President that is supporting the idea of an EIT: representing the Austrian Presidency, Martin Schmid reported that the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, has a 'positive view' on the EIT, and that the Presidency will therefore propose that the European Council invites the Commission to submit a proposal on the subject.
Indeed the Commission has already drafted a proposal, which is currently at the stage of inter-service consultation within the Commission. The communication draws on the responses received during a consultation that attracted 741 contributions during the autumn of 2005.
Even though respondents weren't asked to describe the problems in Europe's research and innovation systems that an EIT would address, many did so of their own accord, said Stylianos Katsoulakis from the Commission's Education and Culture DG. Many spoke of weak links between science and society, a lack of top quality science and poor application of research results. Participants also pointed to a lack of entrepreneurial culture, as well as the lack of a critical mass of resources, and of public procurement.
The consultation illustrated the variety of views that Europe's research community has on the EIT's mission. Some saw it boosting excellence in research, while others were more interested in exploiting knowledge outcomes, breaching the boundary between research and industry through the teaching of relevant skills, and assisting cross-border mobility.
In terms of structure, views ranged from a new institutional format, a geographically distributed structure, a geographically centred structure; a star-like network with a central node; and a reference model for driving changes across Europe. Mr Chatzimarkakis favours using the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, dropping the requirement for MEPs to travel to Strasbourg once a month. 'Strasbourg would become 'Sciencebourg',' he joked.
It is clear then that the Commission's proposal will not satisfy all. Mr Katsoulakis was reluctant to comment upon the draft proposal. Even those in agreement on the need for an EIT are not necessarily in agreement on its mission and structure. They will have to wait until mid-February, when the Commission hopes to publish its proposals, to find out which views the Commission has elected to champion.