02 Feb 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in European Policy, 0 Comments

European Institute of Technology: KIC(K)starting innovation or networking itself to death?

Some 250 or so stakeholders met on 23 January, 2009, in Budapest for a thematic seminar of the European Institute of Technology and Innovation (EIT). It was the second in a series of three events focusing on the preparation of the so-called Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), this one focusing on the topic of research and development towards the Future Information and Communication Society.

The whole thing is quite complicated and merits a few explanatory notes. The original concept of the EIT was inspired by the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an American university from whose grounds have sprung many groundbreaking discoveries and inventions. MIT has also contributed significantly to the business world, either by way of companies founded by MIT scholars or those profiting from alumni knowledge. As a part of the EU’s Lisbon Agenda, the EIT was supposed to support Europe’s competitive position in the field of high-tech research and innovation in the same vein as MIT, i.e., through a combination of academic research and teaching with a tangible commercial impact.

However, the idea to set up a new campus university that was by default European apparently did not sit well with existing national universities, which feared new competition. At the same time, many member state governments would have liked to host the institution in order to capitalise on its reputation and economic side effects. When negotiations to find a location and to make proper arrangements with the present higher education landscape were unsuccessful, the university concept was finally abandoned in favour of a decentralised and non-academic organisation.

By that time, it was starting to get a bit unclear what the specific benefit of the EIT was going to be, since the European Union has a buzzing multi-billion Euro framework programme for research already in place. This instrument, which is currently in its seventh edition and therefore referred to as FP7, encourages the formation of international consortia consisting of universities, research facilities, NGOs, and private enterprises. These groups may come up with scientific research proposals matching general themes specified by the European Union. Within such consortia, however, the partners remain completely independent and perform the work allocated to them at their respective premises only.

In an effort to salvage some of the campus spirit and hoping to create close-knit groups of mutually inspiring experts nonetheless, the EIT founders then came up with the aforementioned KICs. A KIC is basically a consortium similar to FP7, but with four major differences: it is supposed to be a legal entity of its own, it must be able absorb a budget of a whopping 50-100 million Euro per year, it is to last for a period of seven years or more, and it is to set up “nodes”, i.e., actual places where participants meet and work together for longer periods of time straight.

Anybody who has taken part in FP7 consortium negotiations (and subsequent practical consortium co-operation at that) knows how difficult and time-consuming this process can be. And that’s for a comparatively informal and small structure. But setting up a legal entity is immensely more difficult. It might, for instance, require all partners to become shareholders, co-owners, or founding members of the KIC. This creates all kinds of concerns: private companies will probably have particular issues with intellectual property rights; public bodies such as universities might not even be allowed to acquire a stake in a private body; everybody gets nervous about financial liability, etc.

Also, to be successful, the “nodes” require a special breed of very mobile scientists and researchers. While this may work out in many cases, other experts – and often not the worst ones – might find that they do their best work staying at home base for an extended period of time, undisturbed in their concentration.

FP7, once again, supports hundreds of projects at any given time. Accordingly, you would think that the EIT was supposed to establish at least a few dozen KICs. That is not so. Not even close. It was decided that the EIT should first try its revised concept with a maximum of a mere three KICs, which must address either or all of the following predefined themes: (1) sustainable energy, (2) climate change, and (3) the future information and communication society. The next call for proposals is only scheduled for the year 2013.

This means that we can expect one KIC per theme, if at all. It is also possible that one or two of the topics get disregarded for a lack of acceptable applications. But say, there is a KIC on the Future Information and Communication Society. In order to cover an at least halfway comprehensive range of currently relevant issues in that area, this KIC would have to be positively sprawling. It would require a combination of big businesses (and, by the way, competitors) such as Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple with a dozen of the most high-profile universities, and at the same time – which is yet another requirement – provide support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well. And as if that were not enough, KICs are supposed to liaise with third-party research organisations, too.

This is almost inconceivable. In any case, that KIC will likely turn out to be really monstrous. Is there actually any single research question or task of sufficient size for the time being? While the challenges regarding climate and energy are surely big enough, the same probably does not hold true for the ICT sector.

Furthermore, the EIT will not support or co-ordinate the process of building KIC consortia, since that would jeopardise the impartiality of the selection process. KICs might therefore be formed rather haphazardly, with organisations choosing partners rather for their practical compatibility and size than with a sensible and relevant common research objective in mind.

More questions are raised by the foreseen financing methods. The EIT will supply a maximum of 25 percent of the money required to operate a KIC throughout its lifetime. The remainder is supposed to be paid by the participating private companies themselves and from additional subsidies out of FP7 and the European Union’s Structural Funds. But which instrument will have precedence? Will a KIC by default have priority access to FP7 money, since the EIT selection trumps all others? And what if it turns out to be impossible to tap into sufficient other funds to match the 75 percent requirement (which can easily happen under the influence of the economic crisis)?

So in all, it seems that the ambitious project of a centralised European Institute of Technology and Innovation has been politically watered down to a major networking effort. In the typical European fashion, the EIT will thus reach out to many participants in many locations rather than arouse the jealousy of the non-host countries or scientists who fail to be invited or are not able to take residence at its headquarter.

Probably, there can never be enough support for cutting-edge research and innovation. True excellence, however, might indeed best be achieved by way of a centralised organisation such as CERN in Geneva.

I will look at content-related issues and alternative solutions in part two of this article.