Big Apple Science Idea Spreads to Europe

Article excerpt

A high-tech idea hatched in New York City has found an offshoot in the United Kingdom and could sprout up in other European countries. With the help of international partners and British universities, U.K. Science Minister David Willetts aims to establish a new type of privately funded postgraduate university dedicated solely to science and technology-similar to one taking shape in the Big Apple.

Last year, New York invited universities from around the world to bid in a competition to build a campus dedicated to applied science. The competition stemmed from a concern that the city was falling behind knowledge hubs that have emerged around universities in Boston and Silicon Valley, missing out on opportunities to create jobs in nascent digital industries. Earlier this year, city officials selected the winning bid; Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology will collaborate to establish a new science campus on Roosevelt Island.

The push to nurture cutting-edge research in New York and possibly soon in some large British city comes against a background of increasing globalization and international competition in higher education, along with growing demands for greater collaboration with business. The move in the United Kingdom could also tackle a problem that has long plagued British universities: while they are good at generating ideas, they are not as good as their U.S. counterparts at exploiting them to generate new businesses, jobs, and wealth.

It's a dilemma highlighted in the fortune and fate of two well-known science teams: the one, now history, made up of former Stanford University computer science students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, whose talents were discovered and supported by the founder of Sun Microsystems and who later launched Google; and the other, the Manchester University scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who identified a new form of carbon called graphene, but--despite a Nobel Prize-never saw investments follow their discovery.

Willetts, who sees a privately funded science university as an opportunity to overcome this dilemma, is urging U.K. universities to look outside the country for support. "The next round of new institutions may well link existing British universities with international partners," he said just weeks after the winner of the U.S. competition was announced. "This time, we will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates." Under proposed changes to the U.K.'s higher education system, it will become easier for overseas institutions to set up in the country, in much the same way that an increasing number of U.K. and U.S. universities have established campuses overseas.

Willetts's proposal for a "new kind of dedicated science university" that taps businesses for money and pulls in international partners for expertise has generated plenty of discussion--and no small amount of skepticism--from experts in the United Kingdom and across Europe. University of Warwick Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift says he is definitely interested in the idea. His university was the only British institution to reach the finalist list for the New York competition. Thrift's counterpart at Cranfield University, John O'Reilly, believes the idea underscores the importance of linking research and innovation in business with postgraduate teaching.

Others are less convinced. Kieron Flanagan from the University of Manchester, for instance, questions whether business would be willing to invest in science campuses that are unlikely to generate profits. …