A new Einstein lives in America. His name is Edward Witten. He is one of the world's pre-eminent mathematical physicists, whose work has received almost every conceivable prize available in his discipline. Professor Witten, an American, is affiliated to the renowned Institute for Advanced Studies in New Jersey, where Einstein worked after he fled Germany. Several years ago, Prof Witten "temporarily" left the IAS to work for another robust institution: the California Institute of Technology. Caltech lured him to join as a visiting professor with enticements of a salary increase and the chance to start a large research group.
America's top universities compete with each other for the world's best researchers. They are willing to pay the "market value" for top scientists, in the same way that Europeans pay for top football players. But it is not just salary that is used in the battle for the best scientists; large research funds and promises of cutting-edge facilities are also strong incentives.
The results are clear: according to a 2005 academic ranking of the world's 20 top universities, 17 are in the US, two in Europe and one in Japan. From 1901 to 1950, 73 per cent of the Nobel Prizes in science went to European researchers. It declined to just 20 per cent in the last decade. Furthermore, 60 per cent of European engineers and physicists conducting their PhDs in the US say that they intend to stay there. This brain drain is causing serious concern in Europe and is one of the factors in a predicted shortage of 500,000 engineers and scientists within 10 years.
Recognising the dangers to European innovation, competition and economic growth, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has proposed the creation of a European Institute for Technology. Mr Barroso wants the EIT to be running by 2009 and to function as a "pole of attraction for the very best minds, ideas and companies from around the world".
How do you create excellence in science and education, and is the proposed format for the EIT appropriate? We have researched the issue and found that the creation of a world-class institute requires a university model that is radically different from the typical European one. What distinguishes top institutes is the ability to support world-class research facilities and attract superior student and faculty talent. This is made possible by a broad funding base; performance-based payment; a highly selective admissions process; competition in research funding; freedom both academic and in governance; and focus in research. Fundamental cultural change is required to bring about this kind of model.
While no decision has yet been made, Mr Barroso has expressed his intention not to reinvent the wheel. Many voices in Europe, indeed, argue that the EIT should be based on networks of existing European universities. However, it is doubtful whether institutions based on a traditional European format, with vested interests, have the necessary innovative power, let alone the will, to co-operate.
Furthermore, past attempts to enhance co-ordination by strengthening networks of universities have resulted in allocating resources over broad research fields and many institutions without producing clear benefits. Our research shows that focus and concentration of talent and resources are essential. Creative processes require physical proximity that even advanced information and communications technology cannot overcome. In other words, a physical rather than a virtual format ought to be sought.
To emulate the world's best, Europe should not base the EIT on existing entities, but build a new institute from scratch. A comparison with young, successful institutes, such as the Insead business school, suggests that a new institute can function well within a decade and be part of the world's elite within 20 years. Such a top-down initiative should be complemented by a strictly bottom-up approach to setting the research agenda, letting top researchers decide on their priorities.
Europe needs the strength to start something new or not act at all. Without a shared, courageous vision the EIT could become a wasteful compromise. If the Commission does not have the courage to do this, national governments must take up the challenge in the Council of Ministers, for the sake of excellence. But as things stand, compromise is likely to reign and Nobel Prizes for science, as well as Edward Witten, will remain in America.
Titus Galama is senior analyst and Erik Frinking director at Rand Europe, a non-profit research organisation that aims to improve policy.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on February 22, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.