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European Institute of Technology
A flagship for Europe

Published: 02.03.2006 06:00
Modified: 02.03.2006 15:48
To challenge US dominance in research, the EU is planning a European Institute of Technology (EIT). This virtual university is to comprise a network of several universities. Although the flagship project has excited little enthusiasm at some institutions, ETH Zurich is open to it.

Claudia Naegeli

On Wednesday 22 February José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, presented plans for a European Institute of Technology (EIT), which is to focus on the areas energy, nanotechnology, and information technology. The EIT is designed on the one hand to boost European cutting-edge research and on the other to intensify partnerships between science and industry. Barroso hopes that the project will raise the profile of European research on the international level. Excellence needs a flagship, as he put it in a talk delivered at Delft University of Technology in January.

IDEA League as a nucleus

The EIT is not to be understood as a centralised research body, but more as a network of existing universities. This concept is strongly reminiscent of the IDEA League (1), co-launched by ETH in 1999. Here Imperial College London, Delft University of Technology, RWTH Aachen and ETH Zurich teamed up to do justice to the highest international requirements in education and research via mutual exchange. "The IDEA League welcomes the efforts of the EU Commission for a European Technology Institute," says ETH Rector Konrad Osterwalder. The League hopes that it will be able to play an active part in the EIT’s planning and implementation: "The IDEA League is already a European technology institute, and offers its services as a nucleus," he adds.

Not a copy of MIT

For the ETH Rector creating a new centre of high-level research is a good idea for two reasons: research funding could be deployed more efficiently, and stronger links with industry could be forged. The establishment of such a centre as a newly-built university, however, is not something that Osterwalder would support. This is something that is in fact being discussed within the EU, and just over a year ago the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) was founded in Genoa. To Osterwalder, however, it seems more efficient to support a network of already-existing universities than to start from scratch.

A flagship of European research: The EIT will bring movement to science, education, and technology transfer. (Picture: E. Ramseier).

At many of Europe's universities neither variant has been greeted with much enthusiasm. The League of European Research Universities (LERU), to which Zurich University also belongs, released a statement last November which expressed criticism of proposals for a European Technology Institute. It felt that a single EIT would not be of significant benefit to Europe, and that a network would lack the adaptability required to meet a continuously changing research agenda. This adaptability is precisely what constitutes the productive efficiency of US universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Bill Gates as patron?

Although Barroso would clearly like to narrow the research gap between Europe and the USA and thus keep top researchers in Europe, the intention is not, according to Osterwalder, to copy US universities like MIT. Just what the chances for the EIT as a network might be, however, is something that Osterwalder does not yet wish to speculate on. "The course will be set at the EU Commission meeting in March," he said.

The EU Commission's press release caused a stir in the media landscape. In addition to numerous German newspapers and the Swiss press, the Financial Times carried a report on the planned research institution. The latter has already prompted Bill Gates to gurantee his support for the EIT. In him the "flagship of European research" would have a very strong financial partner from industry on board. First, however, the Council of Europe will deliberate on the EIT. The EU Commission hopes to issue a formal proposal by the end of the year.

(1 IDEA League website: (

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