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UN University unveils plans for a global centre on innovation and development in The Netherlands


A proposal to merge the Maastricht based United Nations University Institute for New Technologies (UNU-INTECH) with the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT) would create a major global research centre focusing on innovation and development. The combined facility would be the largest of its kind in the application of new technologies to help the developing world

Under a one-year transitional arrangement, in which the newly appointed UNU-INTECH director, Professor Luc Soete will continue to head MERIT (a research institute of Maastricht University), United Nations University will investigate modalities for strengthening the Institute by relating its work more closely to expertise existing in Maastricht University. During the year, a new organizational set-up, and the financial arrangements for its long term independence and governing structure and continued full integration in the worldwide network that is the United Nations University (UNU) will be worked out.

The eventual merger, which is subject to approval by the governing councils of UNU and Maastricht University, would achieve a critical mass of over 100 researchers from developed and developing countries. By its sheer size and capacity to generate knowledge on pressing contemporary problems, the new centre would significantly boost UNU’s contribution to the work of the United Nations. UNU is an international community of scholars whose mandate is to generate and transfer knowledge, and strengthen capacities relevant to promoting human security and development.

UNU-INTECH and MERIT have had a long history of cooperation, through their joint PhD programme in economics and policy studies of technical change. Thirty students, a majority from developing countries, are participating in the programme. By bringing together and consolidating the research programmes of the two institutes, the new research centre would be able to provide cutting edge knowledge in five broad areas: (i) micro-based evidence research; (ii) macroeconomics of technology, growth and development; (iii) industrial dynamics; (iv) international business strategies; and (v) governance of science, technology and innovation.

Addressing the first joint staff meeting of the two institutes in January, Professor Soete argued that the research “division of labour” between the two institutes envisioned in the late 80’s appears increasingly old fashioned and meaningless. At that time, MERIT was expected to focus primarily on its national, European role and advanced country role, while UNU-INTECH would address broader development issues and the developing world in particular.

Increasingly, the impacts of technological change are felt across borders thus challenging the traditional focus on national research, he said. Beyond that, the landmark political changes in Central and Eastern Europe have given rise to the rapid development of a new category of countries - the countries in transition – many of which entered the European Union in May 2004. In this context, the two institutes offer some natural “geographical” synergies that can be readily exploited, namely INTECH’s UNU global research and policy network and MERIT’s local, national and European research and policy network. “All the pieces appear in place to reap these synergies”, he added.

Professor Soete outlined three broad strategic aims for the merged UNU institute:

1. Achieve world class research “excellence” not just within the economics discipline but also across other social sciences of direct relevance to the study of innovation and development, including knowledge transfer;
2. Focus on the policy aspects and relevance of the research, not just limited to national and local policy makers in advanced and developing countries but also more globally in relation to UN and other international organizations;
3. Provide training and capacity building programmes at both the academic (PhD) and policy level.

He stressed, therefore, that he is strongly in favour of an eventual merger, but this proposal would not be based on financial or organizational necessity “… even though there are likely to be significant economies of scale, which could be realised under a merger. The motivation for putting effort and energy in bringing a merger about is first and foremost intellectual. The lead for investigating integration possibilities is clearly a content one. At the same time this lead is embedded in the drive to create a centre of research excellence which has the potential to become of world significance.”

These developments are in line with the Dutch government’s strategy of creating a knowledge cluster to catalyze economic development in the southern part of the country. The establishment of the University of Limburg in 1976 (later renamed Maastricht University) was part of a such an explicit regional policy to generate, alongside the further enlargement of the university in the social sciences, a number of independent research institutes, which would benefit from the concentration of the knowledge infrastructure in the city of Maastricht, the capital of the most southern province of The Netherlands.

Wangu Mwangi | alfa
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