Reclaiming EU research and innovation as a public good

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

As civil society believing in the European project, we wonder whether today, this is the right orientation for R&I? [Shutterstock]

EU-funded research and innovation has enormous potential to deliver a sustainable and equitable future, yet we have fundamentally distorted its purpose, prioritising innovation for commercialisation over innovation for society’s needs, writes Jill McArdle.

Jill McArdle is European advocacy officer at Global Health Advocates.

What is research and innovation for? Most would respond that it is for pursuing scientific excellence, the discovery of new knowledge and understanding, for seeking solutions to the most fundamental issues we face and helping us deliver on our international commitments like the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Yet, at EU level, the major societal benefits are normally understood as competitiveness of our industries, creating jobs and economic growth. Indeed, the current EU R&I programme sits under the Competitiveness heading in the EU’s seven-year budget and is discussed by member states in the Competitiveness Council.

Other goals, such as sustainable development and excellence, are not absent, but they are mostly treated as tools in pursuit of this ultimate goal.

As civil society believing in the European project, we wonder whether today, this is the right orientation for R&I? We are told of course that we can pursue all these goals at once, but dig deeper and this response seems weak.

Civil society raised alarm bells when the Commission first announced its proposal to merge two of its three pillars: societal challenges with industrial competitiveness in the next hundred billion euro programme Horizon Europe (scheduled to begin in 2021). What was in dispute was not the presence of industry, but the blurring of competitiveness-oriented objectives with those aimed at addressing societal challenges.

This muddling of objectives raises serious questions of governance, transparency and accountability: Who sets the priorities? How can we be sure that sustainable development will not be subordinated to the goal of industrial competitiveness if they conflict?

This week the European Parliament adopted its position on Horizon Europe. While critical improvements were made in terms of climate action, disappointingly, the Parliament declined to put in place other concrete safeguards for sustainable development. There is no guarantee of funding for independent projects that will prioritise societal impact over competitiveness.

This means no assurance that publicly funded R&I can pursue all possible solutions to societal challenges, not merely those that spell profitability for companies. In agriculture, for example, will the programme fund new, relatively safer pesticides to be sold by agribusiness, or alternative pest management techniques that can be implemented by farmers for free?

Looking at governance too, the picture is not reassuring. Strong involvement of citizens and NGOs in setting research priorities can help ensure that sustainable development is not sidelined.

While the Parliament did acknowledge the importance of engaging with society, overall there was a failure to tackle the barriers faced by citizens and civil society organisations, such as lack of capacity and unfamiliarity with the programme. The Parliament, taking their lead from the European Commission, did not support the reintroduction of a dedicated programme for science and society which could have addressed these barriers.

At a concrete level, the Parliament also declined to promote access to the results of R&I. Take health, where the accessibility and affordability of new medicines are crucial to ensuring meaningful impact for society.

Yet proposed new measures, whereby beneficiaries of EU funding would be asked to consider how future medicines could be made accessible, were rejected. Is this surprising, given that health, like the rest of the societal challenges, will sit under the new “Global Challenges and Industrial Competitiveness” pillar?

Most disturbingly, the Parliament undermined Open Access commitments. Access to research results and research data should be a cornerstone of all publicly funded R&I, yet the Parliament chose to extend the list of reasons for “opting out” of open access, covering vague concerns from competitiveness to “security concerns” and “trade secrets”. The list is so broad it could easily be abused to avoid open access obligations.

The inclusion of the “innovation principle” in Horizon Europe is another stark example of how this orientation toward competitiveness and commercialisation is undermining sustainable development. This so-called principle is a tool invented by industry lobbies to undermine EU social and environmental regulations.

It seeks to assess regulations for their “impact on innovation”, rather than assessing innovation for its impact on our health and environment. Its supporters will tell you that this is essential for sustainable development. Yet this misunderstands something: we must always ask what impact innovation has on sustainable development, not the other way around.

We must make clear that R&I serves society and sustainable development first. In prioritising the public interest in this way, R&I will still bring new products and services that will benefit society and the companies who develop them.

Crucially though, it will also leave room for solutions that are not commercialisable, and for ambitious investment in neglected societal challenges where there is little market interest, while also ensuring these solutions are safe, suitable, accessible and affordable.

As we head into negotiations on Horizon Europe, we must urgently change how we view research and innovation: not through a narrow prism serving private interests, but as a public good capable of delivering widely shared societal benefit.

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