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Harsh grades for ‘Europe’s MIT’

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) gets poor grades from the European Union’s financial watchdog. In a report released today, the European Court of Auditors said that EIT needs some fundamental changes if it is to fulfill its job of sparking innovation in Europe.

EIT, officially launched in 2008, was the idea of former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso. He hoped that the European Union could create an institute that would help forge links between education, innovative science, and business, to overcome a perceived “innovation gap” in Europe. (The name was supposed to be reminiscent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.) The idea was widely criticized from the start, with various expert commissions concluding that it was “ill-conceived and doomed to failure” and “a politically motivated idea, starting from a wrong premise.”

The first few years were indeed rough, says Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, a funding body for Europe’s top scientists, and an early critic of the concept. But after a couple of years and a management overhaul, she says, “in the last couple of years they have really made progress.” EIT now has five so-called Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs), which bring together scientists from universities, research institutes, and businesses who are focused on a given theme such as climate, sustainable energy, or digital technology. 

The Court of Auditors says EIT still has a long way to go. The unusually blunt report says that there is “little evidence of tangible results or impact to date” for the KICs, although it says they have “stimulated an innovation network.” EIT needs “significant adjustments” to the rules that govern it, that will allow it to work more smoothly with its partners, especially businesses. Grants should also run longer than the current 1-year term, and EIT should find better ways to measure the impact of its projects—and take that into account when making funding decisions. 

In a statement, EIT leaders say they have made “significant progress” since the Court of Auditors evaluation ended in June 2015, and say they will “continue to work closely with the European Commission to implement the auditors’ recommendations.”

Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, a science advocacy organization, says the report is a chance to set more realistic expectations. “Part of the problem has been too-high expectations,” he says. “EIT can’t solve the European innovation problem.” A lack of venture capital, for example, is a much bigger problem than a lack of connections between universities and industry, he says. The commission and EIT leaders should “think again about what the EIT is able to do, and what does it do well.”