Need R&D? Import MIT

DUBLIN (07/17/2000) - The MIT Media Lab is setting up shop in Ireland, where the government hopes it will help make the country a center for high-tech innovation. The MIT's Media Lab, which will officially open its European branch in Dublin this month, plans to have about 30 students and five faculty members by next year.

The European outpost will operate independently of its U.S. parent while pursuing research in similar areas, such as video distribution technology and "intelligent" toys that show how children think. After two years of negotiations, Ireland outbid Germany and Sweden to house Media Lab Europe by promising to invest almost $35 million and to provide a rent-free facility for 10 years. Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte wooed the Irish government "like a tremendous salesman," says University of Limerick VP Kevin Ryan, who was close to the negotiations.

The government was willing to pay so much because, although technology drives its national economy, it does so from the end of an assembly line. Corporate giants such as Dell, Intel, HP and Xerox employ Irish citizens in jobs such as putting processors on motherboards and answering tech support calls. Lab COO John Callinan, a former adviser to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, says the government hopes to attract high-tech research and development to a new multimedia village planned around Media Lab's office in central Dublin.

Those redevelopment plans are part of a $2.5 billion government initiative to promote R&D across Ireland, but details are sketchy. And only one other tenant, incubator Guinness Enterprise Center, is committed. The government's grant to MIT raised eyebrows in the chronically under-funded research departments of Irish colleges, even though the deal stipulates that an unidentified Irish university will receive more than $1 million each year for a collaborative research project with the lab.

"[The Media Lab] may not be just in collaboration," says Alan Smeaton, dean of computing and mathematical sciences at Dublin City University. "They may also be in competition" for researchers and corporate funding. One computer science professor, who asked not to be identified, grumbles "when you hear that they're paying 28 million pounds to MIT, and they wouldn't give us 25,000 pounds, it gets up your nose."

Glorianna Davenport, a Media Lab Europe director, says MIT's presence will lead the way to better relationships between universities and industry, and will "allow Ireland to become a center of corporate research for Europe." But will the Irish offspring live up to its parent's vaunted reputation? Negroponte has said that the typically easygoing Irish mentality fits his iconoclastic style more than those of other European cultures.

Even so, the Irish version may not be as freewheeling as the U.S. lab, which thrives on thinking that transcends the boundaries of traditional disciplines, drawing on ideas from art, commerce, psychology and technology. Davenport points out that Irish education discourages creativity because college admissions are based on rigorous standardized tests. Interesting accomplishments and creative essays don't count. Researchers needing a little inspiration, however, won't have to go far.

The lab is currently located above Guinness Hopstore, the brewing company's tourist center.

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