European Institute of Technology launches first call for research proposals for Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs)

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is a step closer to operational reality following its first call for proposals for new major Europe-wide research programmes.

The EIT last week called for proposals across three broad areas: climate change mitigation and adaptation, sustainable energy, and the future information and communication society. Two or three proposals will be selected by January 2010 to become the EIT’s first so-called Knowledge Innovation Communities (KICs), European-wide research collaborations between academia, research and business. 

Martin Schuurmans, chairman of the EIT’s 18-member governing board, told Chemistry World that the three research topics were purposely left vague. ’It is up to the KIC’s proposers to set their focus area,’ he says. ’What counts for the EIT is the economic, environmental, societal and innovation impact of the KIC in the context of European challenges and policies.’

The EIT, first proposed in 2006 by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as a European rival to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, was officially launched in September 2008 with a six-year budget of €308 million (£277 million), far less than the €2 billion originally envisaged.

KIC proposals made this year must include at least three independent partner organisations from at least three EU member nations, which can be universities, research institutes, business firms, financial institutions, governmental authorities, or foundations. A KIC must also include at least one university and one private company.

The EIT says KICs will be ’characterised by geographically distributed people.’   Each KIC is expected to have four to six ’co-location centres or lead nodes,’ where members from throughout Europe - and possibly outside of the EU - will spend significant periods of time for face-to-face collaboration.

When up and running, KICs are expected to have annual budgets of €50-100 million per year, with no more than 25 per cent coming from the EIT during the first four years.

The less than optimal funding for the EIT will not be an issue later this year during the KIC selection process, according to Schuurmans.   ’Whether it will be two KICs or three will not depend on the availability of funds, but on the quality of the proposals,’ he says. ’What we want is top-level, innovative proposals.’

The KIC concept is not universally accepted. Bengt-Åke Lundvall, professor of economics at Aalborg University in Denmark and expert on the economics of innovation, warns that KICs might become ’monopolies of knowledge’ that will not stimulate innovation. Lundvall says he would rather see at least two competing networks within each of the three EIT topic areas.

’The reason is very simple,’ Lundvall tells Chemistry World. ’I think that competition and diversity stimulates the production of knowledge.’

In creating KICs the EIT follows an old European track of competing with the US through big scale projects, claims Lundvall, but adds that he thinks this is ’a misinterpretation of the United States.’ He feels diversity and competition have been the primary creative forces behind successful US research and innovation, not scale.

Asked whether he believes the EIT is a good idea, he says: ’I am not against the institution as such, just the current design.’ He adds that he sees the EIT as a very long-term effort that could take some time to find the right methods to link high quality science to successful innovation.

Schuurmans rejects Lundvall’s concerns. ’The KICs will be centres where knowledge is generated, enhanced and shared. But the KICs will not, should not, and cannot do this in isolation.’

Each KIC will have a ’strong’ outreach programme and will be subject to annual performance evaluation by the EIT Governing Board, says Schuurmans. ’This may lead over time to decreased or increased funding by EIT, changes in the KIC, [or] new partnerships in the KIC,’ he says.