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The Cambridge-MIT Institute’s International Innovation Benchmarking project found that a high level of partnering already exists between businesses and universities in the United Kingdom. The survey, which contacted 3,600 U.S.- and U.K.-based companies, found that U.K. businesses were 30 percent more likely to cite joint R&D with universities as an activity that contributes to their innovation; and the U.K. companies were roughly three times more likely to cite the licensing of university-held patents.

However, the survey revealed that U.S. companies that collaborate with universities seem to get more out of the partnership than their U.K. counterparts. U.S. companies were more likely to say they valued the partnerships, and so they gave them a larger share of their innovation budget.

Hughes says creating an EIT may not address this “thinness” of the U.K. partnerships relative to those in the United States – because the problem may lie on the business side. “It probably reflects the extent to which the companies themselves are capable of absorbing what the innovators have to offer,” Hughes says. “In the U.S. you have more highly qualified management teams and labor staffs.”

Even more important, though, says Hughes, is that both U.S. and U.K. businesses value universities more for their graduates and publications, and for the informal contacts they foster between researchers, than for explicit R&D partnerships and licensing agreements. Hughes thinks national institutions are more likely than an EIT to foster these more informal exchanges businesses value most. “I’m not confident you can do these sorts of things in a top-down way,” he says.

Such discussions about the merits of a European-wide technology institute for fostering innovation may turn out to be, well, academic, at least in the short term. Given the well-publicized defeat of a proposed EU constitution last year, some of Europe’s national leaders may question whether the timing is right for pursuing another grand European institution. If they do, though, EIT-based research would not begin until 2010 at the earliest.

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