TCS Daily


Old School Europe

By Craig Winneker - June 6, 2006 12:00 AM

A timely political scandal may provide an unexpected boost to an idea that has so far attracted little enthusiasm: a European version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Proponents of a new EU academic research Mecca -- chief among them is the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso -- believe a new "European Institute of Technology" will help improve the climate for innovation on the continent and plug up the brain drain that has let its brightest young scientific minds flow to America. This, in turn, will spur ailing economies and help the EU fulfill its goal of becoming the world's most dynamic knowledge based economy by 2010.

Sounds nifty. But so far, the idea's most attractive selling point is not the school itself nor even the promise of a brighter, more technologically advanced economic future. It's the place where the campus could be located: the current home of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"Will Strasbourg become Sciencebourg?" reads a recent headline in European Voice, the Brussels insider weekly. Probably not -- and not just because the name would be a sure-fire tourism turn-off. But the news that the quaint Alsatian capital has been overcharging its EU tenants millions of euro in rent on some of the parliamentary facilities has intensified longstanding calls for the assembly to stop making its monthly sojourns there.

This, in turn, has helped move the EIT idea from the back burner, where it had been placed soon after its February debut, to somewhere in the middle of the stove.

Parliamentary reformers pounced on the scandal revelations to renew their longstanding call to end the ridiculous trips to Strasbourg, which cost EU taxpayers hundreds of millions of euro every year (even before the rent gouging was factored in).

"The money saved by putting an end to the travelling circus -- almost €200 million per year -- would be well invested in Europe's future," said Alexander Alvaro, a member of the European Parliament who leads the reform faction. "When we think of the best universities, with the best facilities in the world -- we should think of a university in the heart of Europe: the European Institute of Technology."

Those are nice thoughts -- and the Strasbourg angle is a sexy selling point. But what about the idea itself: Is the EIT really the way to grow a new class of innovators in Europe?

There's no doubt something needs to be done. If its Lisbon agenda to create the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy were a sort of ten-year doctorate in political economy, the EU would have already failed its midterms and be on its way to a final exam flameout.

So, like a student cramming desperately before a crucial test, Barroso hatched the EIT proposal and, to be fair, it's not a bad one. Even in Europe, few argue against the importance of innovation, and politicians always like to say they're spending money on "improving education."

But it's an idea that, to quote a university report card, "needs improvement". Even though it's being pitched as Europe's answer to MIT, the Barroso proposal does not actually envision a single home for the institution, even if it does set up shop in the Parliament (which will depend on France agreeing to end the Strasbourg sessions -- a long-shot). Rather it will be a virtual campus, a loose affiliation of existing academic institutions across Europe. "Light and flexible," Barroso calls it.

There is something so naïve -- college-freshman naïve -- about thinking it's possible to just conjure up a research institution of the caliber of MIT or Stanford or even Ball State. These fine institutions did not just appear out of the sky, fully formed and preheated for instant success, like, say, the iPod or Jessica Simpson. They grew over decades and even centuries. Some government prodding helped them along but mostly they built reputations for research and innovation the old-fashioned way: they were endowed it.

Then there is the electorate -- sorry, the student body. If European students want to be as successful as their American (or Asian) counterparts, they wouldn't have spent spring break on the streets of Paris dodging tear gas canisters, singing the Internationale and demanding that their first job after graduation be guaranteed for life. They'd have been doing beer bongs in Daytona (or would have long ago dropped out of college to develop the Next Big Thing).

Europe has had mixed success trying to foster innovation through central planning diktat. Consider its efforts to create a European technology cluster à la Silicon Valley. Most feature clever names that play on the original idea (just as EIT echoes MIT): Silicon Glen is in Scotland, Silicon Fen in England, and the Côte du Silicon in the South of France.

But aside from Silicon Fen, home to hundreds of small companies clustered around Cambridge University, few world-shaking innovations have come from these places. (The popular wireless technology Bluetooth is a product of Silicon Fen.) Those that have succeeded have done so because they have been allowed access to venture capital and are largely the result of private initiative, developing organically rather than through what Europe likes to call "Research Framework Programmes."

Still, it's fun to daydream about EIT. What courses would it offer? International Business Management at the Jacques Chirac School of Unilingualism? Diplomacy 101 in the Philippe Douste-Blazy School of History, named for the French foreign minister who recently expressed surprise that the Nazis hadn't occupied Great Britain, and who has confused Taiwan with Thailand and Kosovo with Croatia? Or perhaps Innovation as Imitation, a course examining such me-too European research projects as the Galileo satellite network and the French version of Google.

Maybe that's the problem in the first place. The EIT sounds like a great idea but it's really just another half-hearted rip-off. Whether or not Strasbourg is still Strasbourg, by the time Europe gets around to approving Barroso's plan, MIT -- and the rest of the world, for that matter -- will have moved on to something else.

Craig Winneker is TCS Daily's Europe editor.

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14 Comments

What Europe needs
The EU should not find new areas to bless with the failed policies and principles it has applied elsewhere. The EU should first of all stem the flood of regulation, secondly weed out much of the existing regulation, thirdly move out of areas where it cannot accomplish anything good (did anyone say "CAP"?) , fourthly start to build again the four freedoms (there still is a lot to do).

The EU as the Principal for higher education? When they cannot fix there own accounting, perform an unpartisan report or grasp how the economy works? Please no.

Some observations
My (British educated brilliant engineer) husband and I visited Ironbridge Gorge in England last weekend. It is arguably the birth place of the industrial revolution! It was awe inspiring - but the question that came to both of us was: What have you done lately? Having lived in England for the last year trying to do some reforming at a British IT firm, we are throwing in the towel and moving back to the US. They just can't stand the idea of change - any change. Innovation is a scary word and they have no stomach for it.

How did they get here from there? From the cutting of edge of technology to an also ran? It is so frustrating to be here and realize what capable people these Brits are, and smart and nice etc. But don't talk to them about change because it is a dirty word!

A Private University in Europe
My alma mater, Rice University, is helping the city of Bremen, Germany establish the International University of Bremen. It will be a private research univeristy on the US model. It has only been open a few years, but is already changing expectations of what a university degree should be. The industrial leaders in Bremen are dissatisfied with the type of education the state-run universities provide and want to capture the benefits of a dyanmic research institution.

The EU should look at what is gong on there. And, Germany is a good location for such a school, as it is closer to the new EU countries from the Warsaw Pact.

liberal professors
Are you really saying that all those out of touch liberal American professors are the engine of the US economy?

Do you know that Ecole Polytechnique is the most prestigeous technical university in the world?

Didn't stephen claim
that the best and the brightest were flowing to Europe as fast as their webbed feet could paddle?

LG remains as dense as ever
Anyone with more than a handfull of functioning neurons would have noticed that the article was specifically about technical degrees.

Most prestigious? Must be why 90% of the population has never heard of it.

Oh good, another source of engineers. For the US.

How do you measure the prestige of a university?
I think this is a very good question and I most certainly don' t know the answer. I can tell you that the engineering degree my husband got from The University of Edinburgh in 1990 has certainly prepared him very well for a challenging career in both American and British firms.

Is MIT the "best" engineering school in the US because it MAY be the best known? How about Stanford then? Or Georgia Tech for that matter.

I would say that perhaps the prestige of a degree from a certain school could be measured by how well their students do post graduation? But how do measure that - by the number of international patents they hold?

I am sure that you can't measure the prestige by how difficult it is to get into the school because that record would almost for sure go to IIT - India Institute of Technology. I worked with one of their graduates once and he seemed pretty smart - but not the smartest guy I ever met, by a long shot!

prestige
I'm sure that LG measure's prestige by how many of it's professors are smart enough to agree with him.

They're liberal too
My remaining neuron read that science and engineering faculty are 80% liberal. MIT faculty are 80% liberal. Take an opinion poll at Bytes Cafe at Stanford, or the Atheneum at Caltech, or the Pritchett snack bar at MIT.

25 years ago it wasn't so one sided. But then Presidents Reagan and Bush, Jr. were such obvious morons that even the tree hugging Democrats seemed rational by comparison.

Mark, the fact that YOU haven't heard of Ecole Polytechnique is not a reflection on it. 90% of Americans never heard of Chopin or Gauss, and they think Hayek is a supermodel.

please correct me
Liberal Goodman,

In my opinion it no longer deserves its reputation as a top technical school.

I knew about the Ecole Polytechnique long ago, but aren't they currently best known for their civil servants and CEOs? In the past they were known for their soldiers. I recall no recent prominent scientific or engineering graduates except Mandelbrot, can you?

Only if you include the sizeable non-technical profs at the schools
The tech departments are rarely that liberal. They have to think for a living.

Pure and simple job justification. No more and no less.
The issue here is that the EIT or whatever it is called is nothing but the latest way for the EU folks to justify their jobs. This EU program is an extension of the French and German initiatives at increasing their level of technology by performing "public research". The problem is that the old sayings: "Ideas are like asses; everybody has one." and "The devil is in the details." are true and normally come back to get every good idea.

I hope that Europe figures this giant con-game called the EU out before it is too late. You could argue that for France and Germany it already is too late. But I am an optimist.

I wonder why Reagan was a moron but LG is so smart?
If you can't spell prestigious, that's pres·ti·gious -a word that shouldn't really tax anybody above the 10th grade-perhaps you should refrain from calling anybody else a moron.

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