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Funding woes threaten MIT's Dublin media lab

MIT Media Lab officials are engaged in sensitive talks with the Irish government this week over the future of the 4-year-old Media Lab Europe in Dublin, which is facing a funding crunch.

Coming just over 18 months after MIT pulled out of Media Lab Asia in Bangalore, India, citing differences with the new Indian minister of information over its focus and organization, the negotiations in Dublin call into question the viability of MIT's ambitious plans to globalize its American-style research into digital technology and human potential -- a staple of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge. At one point, MIT had been planning additional labs in Latin America and Australia.

Media Lab Europe was founded in mid-2000 as a collaborative venture between MIT and the Irish government, which agreed to provide the largest share of seed financing in its early years. The plan called for private corporations to gradually pick up larger shares of the funding, according to people close to the Dublin talks, but instead corporate support has diminished as the technology business has slowed.

The talks between representatives of MIT and the government of Ireland are focusing on four areas, the insiders said: future funding, the structure of the lab, the direction of its research, and its affiliation with European colleges and universities. Scenarios being discussed range from the lab being scaled back and restructured to its being shut down, though the parties were said to be working to avoid that outcome.

MIT officials yesterday confirmed the talks are underway and characterized them as sensitive, but declined to provide further information. Irish government officials didn't respond to inquiries.

The funding difficulties of Media Lab Europe mirror those of the MIT Media Lab, which has cut costs and reduced its staff in recent years, and of other academic and nonprofit research organizations that have seen corporate sponsorship tail off since the tech bubble burst.

"Companies had a lot more latitude to fund research five years ago," said Adrian J. Slywotzky, vice president at Mercer Management Consulting in Boston. "But corporate research and development has been subject to increasing scrutiny of 'why are we spending this money for research that's not going to be ready for 10 years.' "

Slywotzky said the kind of digital technology research pioneered by the Media Lab in the 1990s has fallen out of fashion.

Working with industry sponsors and engineering-oriented colleges and universities from Ireland and other European countries, Media Lab Europe employs 80 to 90 researchers and administrators, including many university faculty members and graduate students. Their technology research is part of their studies, though the lab, unlike its mother ship in Cambridge, is not a degree-granting institution.

Like the Media Lab Asia, the Dublin lab had been conceived by Nicholas Negroponte, founder and global ambassador of MIT's Media Lab, as a way of spurring international technology research and bridging the digital divide. Media Lab Asia was started in 2001, but MIT turned over management to the Indian government last year when it found itself at odds with Arun Shourie, the new Indian information minister, over the direction of its research projects.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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