European Institute of Innovation and Technology

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The Commission proposes to establish a European Institute of Technology (EIT), on the model of the famous MIT based in the US, to link the three aspects of the 'knowledge triangle' – research, education and innovation. The aim is to speed up knowledge-transfer to boost innovation. But the proposal has run into criticism, forcing the Commission to water down its ambitions.

Background

Originally proposed by the Commission President José Manuel Barroso, in February 2005, as part of the relaunched Lisbon Agenda, the aim of the European Institute of Technology (EIT) is to strengthen the European 'knowledge-triangle' of research, education and technology-transfer by providing a world-class model for teaching and research through partnerships between academia and business. The EIT is perceived as the European counterpart to the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

Since the idea was introduced, the project has faced much criticism. The Commission's initial plan, which proposed the construction of a single campus and suggested long-term commitments from academia and business, was rejected even by the Commission's own research advisory board (EURAB).

In its first report, issued in April 2005, EURAB experts warned the Commission that a "world-class research institute cannot be created top-down" and stressed that "to succeed, the EIT will need to have the involvement of and full support from the business community from the outset and that the independency of the governing board has to be clearly established and protected". 

A stakeholder consultation on the EIT's key missions, objectives and possible structure took place in Autumn 2005 and the Commission adopted its first official proposal to set up the EIT in February 2006 (see EURACTIV on 23 February 2006). 

However, in March 2006, member states dismissed the possibility of establishing the EIT on a new or existing single campus. Instead, the heads of state and government supported its establishment in the form of a virtual network of existing institutions, which obliged the Commission to somewhat water-down its original proposal and propose other steps towards the EIT's creation, following the European Council's advice (see EURACTIV 9 June 2006).

Issues

The Commission's latest proposal for a final regulation on the establishment of the European Institute of Technology (EIT) was published on 18 October 2006. It suggests the creation, between 2008 and 2013, of three Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which would bring together departments of universities, companies and research institutes to form an integrated partnership to perform in response to calls for proposals from the EIT research, education and innovation activities in inter-disciplinary strategic areas, such as climate change or energy efficiency.

Th EU executive proposes €2.4 billion to be spent between 2008 and 2013 for the establishment of the KICs. Some €300 million would be allocated directly from the EU budget, mainly for the initial start-up phase. The rest, €2.1 billion, is expected to come from the private sector. The institute would also be eligible to apply for money from EU aid funds - the KICs can, for example, apply for project-funding under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research, FP7 (2007-2013). Education Commissioner Jan Figel has said that an "EIT foundation" could be established to gather the necessary funds.

The German Presidency proposal, brought forward early 2007, for a two-stage approach to establishing the EIT has, however, gained strong suport in the informal trialogue discussions between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council in spring 2007. This approach foresees, in the first phase (2008-2012), the nomination of a 15-person governing board, which would be allowed to bring forward proposals for only one, two or three KICs

The governing board would also have until 2012 to deliver a strategic innovation agenda for after 2012. This agenda would then need to be approved by the Council and the Parliament. If approved, the board could propose further KICs. If not, no additional KICs would be established and the existing KICs would stay as they are. The second phase, corresponding to the growth of the EIT, could thus begin at the earliest in 2013. 

Regardless of the strong support for the two-stage approach, the Council is still waiting for the Commission to propose a viable solution for the financing of the institute before it can be approved.

The EIT as such would not award diplomas, as legally only universities can do so. An 'EIT label' on university diplomas is, however, planned.

Positions

To succeed, the European Institute of Technology (EIT) would need the full support and commitment of both business and academia as well as institutional backing from the Parliament and the Council. But, at present, the only unconditional support comes from its initiator, the European Commission.

"Businesses will come along with money once concrete proposals for projects for the Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KIC) are on the table," said Pierre Simon, the president of Eurochambres, which represents more than 19 million large and small enterprises in Europe. 

"Businesses will get involved in the EIT if the institute selects attractive themes, is independent, has ambitious goals, world-class brand and reputation, flexible IPR and secured political support," added Günter Baumann, vice-president of the German chamber of commerce

"Barroso is pushing the business really hard to get companies' backing for his proposal. Apparently, this is something very important to him personally," a business representative told EURACTIV, adding that in no way is business going to sign a blank cheque for an institute that does not exist and the interest of which is not clear for business. "This kind of structure would be good, though, and as such business can support it, but only once the final EIT is in place, and if the private sector sees that there is something interesting in it, it will decide on its participation and involvement in the EIT," the source added.

BusinessEurope thinks that there is too much discussion on the EIT's structure and not enough on its content. "Content is much more important, let's get that solved first and then we can talk about structure. We need to know what we would get out of it," said Leif Kjaergaard, head of BusinessEurope's working group on research and technological innovation. "EIT needs a lot of public money to provide a proof of concept, after which business can decide whether it will join."  

MEP Nina Škottová, the draftsperson for the Parliament's Budget Committee opinion on EIT has expressed "legal doubts" on the planned financing, fearing that EIT activities would be financed at the expense of regional EU projects, as money could be allocated from structural and regional funds. 

Green MEP David Hammerstein said that "the whole EIT business is clearly a mess; it is ill-defined and lacks a real budget. Without a doubt this is an invitation to cannibalize and weaken other EU projects, such as the Seventh Framework Programme for Research. If the European Commission is serious about the EIT it should re-open negotiations on the financial perspectives and create a proper budget for it." 

MEP Jerzy Buzek has said that 50% of Parliament members do not support the idea of an EIT.

MEP Reino Paasilinna, rapporteur for the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee's report on EIT said "the EIT vessel is sailing on dangerous waters" and added that he had asked himself whether EIT was only "yet another crazy idea from the Commission". He said that it is about "killing the process or living with it" and that he has decided to live with it - but first to change the proposal: "EIT is a plausible process. We want to contribute to Lisbon Strategy Goals and EIT is one of the actions. However, the Commission has not proved to us that the EIT will not overlap with existing structures and I have decided to amend the proposal so that it will not do so."

In a recent panel discussion in February 2007, involving all three institutions and business representatives, the Council, the European Parliament and business representatives said that the Commission proposal needed further clarification on: 

  • Financing: where is the €2.1billion going to come from?;
  • the risk of overlap with existing structures (technology platforms, ERA-NET, joint technology initiatives, Eureka etc.) - do we really need an EIT?;
  • concept of Knowledge and Innovation Communities (how will they operate?), and;
  • the role of education, compared with research and innovation in the EIT's 'knowledge triangle'. If the focus of EIT is expected to be on innovation, why is an institute that awards degrees necessary?                            

Wilfried Kraus, chairman of the Council's ad-hoc working group on EIT said: "There is no enthousiasm in the Council, but some optimism. We will find majority for the €300 million the EU's budget foresees for EIT's kick-off, but it is unclear where the rest (€2.1 billion) will come from. EIT is expected to deal with long-term issues, but business does not fund such things."

Asked whether the EIT proposal could be withdrawn, David White, formerly director in charge of the Commission's innovation policy and the leader of EIT discussions in the Council and Parliament, said that: "My conviction is that we have a good proposal and that we are on the way towards success."

"The education side in the EIT is absolutely crucial. And currently there is no institution doing all this [research education, innovation] in Europe," said David White. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about the diplomas. We're talking about perhaps 1,000 research students in one KIC. That's a lot of people, all of them highly applied in their training. The concern of the Commission is that the players in the KICs should influence the university content and content of PhDs. 

"It is crucial to take care that PhDs and masters coming out of the system are highly applied and relevant to industry as they will be picked up fast by industry - or start their own small businesses. This is what is happening around good technology universities and that is where innovation starts. It's the PhDs coming out of education who spin off, start small companies and innovate. Those companies are then picked up by large companies when they succeed. That's the mechanism of innovation. Big companies don't take the risks to innovate. They buy in successful innovation that they have watched developing in small companies," explained White.

Eric Hödl from the European Academy of Sciences and Arts said that prioritising EIT over existing research and innovation activities would "seriously harm the EU university system". 

"This is about Barroso wanting to leave a legacy to Europe. Nobody wants the EIT, but everybody knows it will happen. So, we will just need to try to make the best out of it," told another academy representative to EURACTIV. 

The European Industrial Research Management Association (EIRMA) questions whether, from a business perspective, the Commission's EIT proposal is the right proposal at the right time and highlights the need, first, for a university modernisation. "Please do not see this [EIT] as the only solution," said Andrew Dearing, secretary- general of EIRMA. He explains that to innovate, business and markets need rules, standardisation and regulatory framework, and that there's clearly a role for governments and the Commission to help business with this respect, but "business doesn't have the money to fund infrastructures". He also said that more discussion was needed on the topics of KICs, and that energy and climate change should not be considered as a "too-easy choice".

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) argues that the EIT should be an opportunity to build and develop the existing bottom-up networks of innovation across excellent business enterprises and universities - not top-down concrete or bureaucratic structures. "The current proposal for the EIT regulation is not clear on how the EIT would ensure excellence in choosing the KICs. Nor it is clear on which criteria the persons sitting in the governing board will be chosen. For the ERC, the choice was somewhat easier as scientific excellence could be proven. With regards the EIT, the criteria is not that simple," said LERU Secretary-General David Livesey. 

Bertil Andersson, outgoing chief executive of the European Science Foundation: "Personally, I think this may not be the best way to promote innovation in Europe. I think that creating more dynamic European research depends a lot on giving the universities more freedom to work with innovation. In many countries, universities are still too controlled and have a completely different entrepreneurial tradition compared, for example, with American universities."

Timeline

  • April 2007: A report drafted by the United Nations University (UNU) at the request of the European Parliament, states that the currently proposed EIT is not feasible (see EURACTIV 10 April 2007). 
  • 2 May 2007: The Parliament's Culture and Industry Committees held a joint public hearing on EIT (see EURACTIV 3 May 2007). 
  • 9 July 2007:  Industry and Research Committee (the Parliament's leading committee) adopted its report. 
  • 19 Sep 2007: The Commission proposed a revision of the EU's long-term budget to finance the establishment of EIT.
  • 23 Nov. 2007: Council reached political agreement on a compromise text put forward by the Portuguese Presidency. The Council and Parliament also reached an agreement on the 2008 budget, in which some €300 million is now earmarker for EIT.
  • 21 Jan. 2008: Council adopted a common position on EIT. 
  • 5 Feb. 2008: The Commission appointed a committee to identify members of the EIT governing board.
  • 11 March 2008: Parliament's final vote and adoption in plenary of the Council's common position.
  • 29 May 2008: Ministers failed to decide on the seat of the EIT as Poland vetoed the otherwise unanimously-backed Budapest. Official candidates are Budapest, Wroclaw, Sant Cugat del Valles near Barcelona, Vienna-Bratislava and Jena.
  • 18 June 2008: Budapest was chosen as the EIT seat.
  • July 2008Members of the EIT governing board appointed.
  • 15 Sept. 2008: First meeting of the EIT governing board.
  • 2009: First Knowledge and Innovation Community could be set up and begin activities.

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