There are different ways of coping with global competition. Unfortunately Europe's favorite method is to centralize everything. So it was no surprise when the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso recently unveiled a plan (part of the vaunted Lisbon agenda) for a new pan-European institution for research and teaching. With the European Institute of Technology (EIT), he hopes to create a research Mecca to rival to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Even though there are already many such national centers (such as France's CRNS), the proposed EIT would be on a very different scale.
The creative environment of an academic institution does not grow overnight. It frequently takes decades of work, if not centuries. Europe does have some good research environments but their structures, networks, renown and academic culture are often developed well enough to take a position of global leadership. Funding plays a part, but so do non-monetary issues. The EU's own Marie Curie Fellowship program has shown some promise in facilitating early-stage researchers of any nationality or age with structured scientific or technological training opportunities, and the experiences seem to have been good.
The proposed EIT would redistribute resources and talent from existing institutions, regardless of whether there is a clear indication of success. In doing so it could even reduce institutional competition in Europe. One of the problems with research funding in the EU today is that the institutions receiving grants may not be the best ones for the actual work, but are rather those with political clout. A new centralized institution, near the Commission, would certainly fit this description. And even with a new super-institution, most of Europe's scientific effort is still going to be performed at national universities and by national authorities who might lose further incentives to improve themselves.
Swedish MEP Gunnar Hökmark has proposed an interesting alternative within the European Parliament's 7th Framework Program. Hökmark is critical of the proposal to found a new EIT, arguing that what Europe needs is not more institutes and universities but better science. His proposal is to set up a voucher system with funds following the researcher regardless of where he or she works. The voucher would cover the institution's costs and wages for the researcher, but they would also add to the research budget of the institution the researcher joins. In this way, Hökmark's proposal spurs competition among institutions to develop projects that attract the most competent and productive researchers. This would give a clear signal to institutions and national research authorities to reform in order to improve, while encouraging the exchange of graduate students that is unfortunately less common in Europe today.
Institutional competition is an important aspect of research. American universities compete for research talent, and this has been one of their main reasons for success. The concentration on a single European Institute of Technology tries to eliminate that important competition. It will not solve the problem of an institutional structure that gives little incentive for excellence in research and teaching. Competition would mean a system in which institutions gain resources when they perform well and lose when they do not. A competitive environment would also inspire cross-national cooperation and researcher mobility in order to perform better on specific projects.
Another benefit of Hökmark's proposal is that it would empower younger researchers, since they would also acquire their own funding at a time in their careers when they are most likely to produce innovative work. This independence could further strengthen them in respect to more established research groups, and not make them as dependent on their original professor's research.
Research is a gradual, cumulative and dispersed process that is best served by mobility and experimentation. So in a way the debate on whether to create a new centralized research institution or provide for several venues for creativity to blossom mirrors many other discussions in Europe. The centralized approach has been tried before, and failed to produce results in making the EU more competitive. What European research needs now is not new institutions but new priorities.