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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some good news for European science

In today's edition:
  1. EU innovation institute to be open to world
  2. Study calls for universities to be safeguarded
  3. EU moves to spur investment in future Internet networks
Good news, finally. The articles are speaking for themselves, so I won't comment them separately. I just want to highlight the second article as particularly following my own opinion as a scientist and an university worker. Science cannot and should not be business-oriented. And I'm glad people finally are starting to understand about the scale of the change, governments are trying to force us into. It's not about money, it's about limiting our freedom to research. It's about making us just like USA. True, USA is still having award-winning scientists, but the main reason for this is that US universities gain a great amount of money from fees and from private investors. And they don't do it only by business-oriented researches. They get those money, because the business is stimulated by taxes or by education to support science. While the case in Europe is not the same. There are very few really famous universities that people just die to support. But the others, they are doomed. Is this what we want for Europe? All small universities to go bankrupt? I hope not. And that's precisely why I like that article.
As for the third-it's a good news, although it looks like the finger of EC is messing the natural process of investing in the optical fibres. But that's not so bad, I like the urge to invest in technology. This is good. As for the first article, it's just an announcement to justify the money the EIT will take. Although with 60 people staff, I'm not sure what exactly it will do.

EU innovation institute to be open to world

22 September 2008

The innovation communities of the EU's Institute of Technology and Innovation (EIT) may well include non-European actors, revealed Bálint Magyar, a member of the recently inaugurated governing board of the EIT, in an interview with EurActiv Hungary.

Universities, researchers and businesses from outside Europe "are not out of the game," said Bálint Magyar, a former minister of education and current member of the Hungarian Parliament, as he revealed operational details of the EIT, the EU's pet project for boosting research and innovation in its 27 member states, in the interview.

But he added that the main focus of the future Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) would be in Europe and their actors would "have to be European".

KICs are the main operational blocs of the EIT and are expected to integrate the EU's fragmented research, education and innovation efforts. They are set to bring together departments of universities, companies and research institutes to perform education and innovation activities in inter-disciplinary strategic areas.

Climate change, renewable energy and the next generation of information and communication technologies (ICT) have featured among the planned focus areas for KICs. But Magyar noted that the three provisional thematic priorities could be modified according to needs.

As for the structure of the new EU institute, Magyar revealed that it will employ 60 people, the number considered "optimal" by the Commission.

He also noted that no fixed physical location had yet been designated for the institute in its host city, Budapest. A decision on where this "3,000 m2" building will be located would be taken later, he said, adding that it needed to stay somewhere else "for a transitional period".

Magyar also said that the governing board was currently determining the criteria for the first tenders, to be published and evaluated in 2009. The winners of these EIT tenders will start implementing their projects in 2010, providing the institute's first tangible results. source

Study calls for universities to be safeguarded

22 September 2008

The EU's higher education reform agenda and the growing tendency to consider universities as mere producers of public and private goods is undermining their fundamental educational role, a group of European universities has warned .

A paperexternal from the League of European Research Universities published on 18 September calls on universities to clearly articulate what they stand for and to uphold their freedom and autonomy. Similarly, it urges governments to recognise these as crucial values of universities.

"It is in their creative, free-thinking mode that universities are such a vital resource for the future," summed up Geoffrey Boulton, co-author of the paper.

The call comes as governments have started to invest heavily in universities to steer them towards outcomes which respond to short-term policy priorities. The paper highlights the EU's modernisation agenda for universities and the creation of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology as prime examples of this development.

Governments have come to regard universities as crucial national assets due to the success of the 'Western university' as a breeding ground for creative individuals as well as new knowledge and ideas. Globalisation has further added to the pressure to treat universities as producers of public and private goods, leading to misconceptions about the potential role of universities in society, argues the paper.

However, universities should not be seen as drivers of innovation, which is a process of business engagement with markets. Rather, they help create an environment encouraging innovation, the paper contends, adding that this potential can only be realised through universities' commitment to education in the deepest sense.

The paper follows two other recent studies on the changing role of universities. In a similar vein, a European Science Foundation report warned about the danger of mission overload for universities under pressure to raise their economic competitiveness and to live up to new societal responsibilities.

In contrast, a joint university-industry report argued that the role of higher education institutions was changing from a supply-driven to a demand-driven system, and identified 'trust-based relationships' between research and business as the key to turning more research results into marketable goods and services. source

EU moves to spur investment in future Internet networks

19 September 2008

The Commission yesterday (18 September) put forward a set of proposals aimed at accelerating the transition towards a new generation of high-speed, high-definition Internet services streamed through optical fibre networks. But its plans to stimulate competition in the sector immediately came under fire.

Optical fibres are considered to be the future of communication networks, or so-called Next Generation Access Networks (NGANs). The idea is that they would replace the current copper networks that were originally laid down for telephone calls only but are now being over-stretched by a range of new data-hungry services offered through the Internet, such as High Definition television.

Optical fibres allow faster and wider transmission of data and are therefore slowly being deployed across the EU.

But for the moment, they only cover a marginal share of national markets. According to figures provided by the consulting firm Idate, there are around a million subscribers in Europe in 2008, compared to three million in the US and several million in the most developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

But investment in Europe is also currently low. To upgrade EU networks, at least €300 billion of investment will be necessary, according to estimates by consulting firm McKinsey.

Following strong pressure from the industry (EurActiv 04/07/08) coupled recently with calls from the European Parliament (EurActiv 25/04/08), the Commission yesterday (18 September) finally unveiled proposalsPdf external to spur investment in Next Generation Access Networks (NGANs) over the next few years.

It is expected that roughly €20 billion will be invested to replace copper lines over the next three years.

But Brussels fears the new infrastructure will be dominated by a limited number of big players and, to boost competition in the sector, it wants to allow small operators to have access to the networks owned by dominant actors. In return, competitors interested in using the networks would pay a premium to investors, thereby rewarding them for the risks they take.

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding had originally announced in June that this risk premium would be set at 15% (EurActiv 26/06/08). But following criticism from the main telecoms operators, the figure was left out of the Commission's proposal. Instead, the document says that rates of return should be calculated on the basis of the average cost of capital for telecom operators, between 8% and 12% in recent years. But an official from the Comission's competition service indicated that "the premium should be higher than 12%".

On top of the risk premium, the Commission is proposing a pricing methodology for calculating the fees that will have to be paid for the new services. But this suggestion has angered a range of critics. The European Regulators Group (ERG), which brings together national telecom authorities, immediately labelled the pricing proposal "overly prescriptive", stating that it "risks hurting the sector". The main operators opposed the suggestion as well, while new entrants welcomed it but asked for the premium to be kept as low as possible.

Brussels is also pushing for more infrastructure competition in a direct plea to small companies to deploy their own networks. But smaller actors insist that direct access to incumbents' fibre networks is essential and infrastructure competition would simply drive many of them out of the market. According to a studyPdf external published this week by ECTA (the European Competitive Telecommunications Association), which groups smaller operators, NGANs represent big business for incumbent operators, which "currently control 80-90% of all fixed telecom access lines". In such conditions, guaranteeing access to smaller operators is a must, it argues.

Incumbent operators, on the other hand, are angered by the Commission's plans to force them to share their new networks with their rivals. According to the main industry lobby ETNO (the European Telecommunications Networks Operators Association), multiple access obligations will act as a hurdle to the financial and technical stability of the networks. The organisation yesterday warnedexternal that investment in the telecoms sector already slowed significantly in 2007, falling from 2.3% in 2006 to 1.7%, according to figures provided by Idate. ETNO Director Michael Bartholomew blames this drop on "regulatory pressure" from Brussels.

The Commission proposals have been put to public consultation. The process will last until mid-November. The EU executive has promised to adopt a formal recommendation in 2009.source

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