Thursday

26th Apr 2018

Focus

EU scientists 'suppliers for the economy'

  • How close should research sciencists and industry be? (Photo: European Commission)

Barbara van Dyck, a young bio-engineer from Belgium, will on Tuesday (8 May) appear before a judge in the Flemish town of Dendermonde to refute the public prosecutor’s allegations of conspiracy, destruction of property and theft.

Little less than a year ago, Van Dyck, employed by the Catholic University of Leuven, had participated in a protest against a test field of gmo potatoes run by a consortium of public research institutions.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

She later went on public TV to defend the protesters, some of whom had managed to break through the fencing and destroy some of the plants. Three days later, she was fired.

“They said I could not be a scientist and at the same time condone the destruction of scientific research,” she says in an interview with EUobserver.

But in her view the research being done, aside from being potentially hazardous to the environment, was not in the interest of the public. Part of it was owned by BASF, the German chemical company, who, says Van Dyck, also paid for part of the security of the project.

“Companies in Europe have difficulties finding their own gmo test fields without provoking public protest,” she says. “So they hide behind the good reputation of the university.”

Getting cosy

Van Dyck is part of a movement within academia in Europe that looks with suspicion at the ever closer ties, nursed by the EU and national governments, between science and business.

Compared to the US, those ties in Europe have always been weak. They still are. According to the European Commission, “the number of joint publications between private and public actors per population in the EU is roughly half that of the United States and a third lower than in Japan.”

But that is changing. Faced with growing competition from other parts of the world, governments in Europe have begun to loosen the mandate of universities and to allocate public funding on the basis of economic viability. Industrial partners are often a prerequisite.

As a result, there has been a 20 percent increase from 2000 to 2008 in the share of public R&D funded by business enterprises in the EU, says the commission noting that this is “an encouraging sign.”

Slow Science

For her part, Van Dyck talks of nothing less than “the privatisation of public research”.

It is about being able to choose, she says. “What are the questions we ask ourselves and what are the ones we do not? Today, it is the companies that decide.”

The result, she says, is that many universities today are engaged in short-term research, aimed at making a profit, rather than in more holistic but perhaps commercially less attractive research.

“Social problems automatically become technological problems,” she says. “There is a whole field of disciplines - mostly the humanities - that are underfunded.”

Lieven de Cauter, a philosopher at the Catholic University of Leuven and an activist for the so-called Slow Science movement, agrees. “Universities have become the suppliers for the knowledge economy,” he says.

No more ivory towers

Others disagree. “Nonsense,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the European League of Research Universities.

It is true that universities are doing more and more research commissioned by the industry, he says. “We are the only ones who still can; companies have all but slashed their R&D departments. But always on our own conditions.”

People like Van Dyck “should go and find another job,” he says. “Researchers need to learn to distinguish their own political convictions from science.”

Erkko Autio, business professor at Imperial College London and a Finnish national, says that a strong emphasis on applied science - as opposed to fundamental science which serves no immediate, practical purpose - is what made his country a world leader in innovation. Involvement of the industry, he says, is a good thing.

“Oh yes, I am much in favour,” he says. “Complaints about loss of academic freedom are a self-serving excuse. The days of the university as an ivory tower are over.”

And the winner is...

The case of Barbara van Dyck is likely to add fuel to the debate and to embolden the movement she has come to represent. She risks several years in prison.

Some, like Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes, say it is a political trial, pointing at Flemish Prime Minister Kris Peeters who shortly after the protest declared that the perpetrators would be prosecuted.

Yet, however emboldened they may be, the debate seems all but decided as the never-ending crisis urges politicians to do everything they can to get revive the economy.

"Cooperation between the worlds of science and the world of business must be enhanced, obstacles removed and incentives put in place," says the European Commission, in its new, seven-year innovation strategy.

EU innovation summit calls for a return to science

If one message shone through the myriad of ideas expressed on day one of Europe's first ever Innovation Summit, it was a call for a greater numbers of students in the field of science.

Innovation

As the EU continues to struggle with the effects of the economic crisis, the importance of investing in innovation and research is increasingly been emphasized. But how much money is enough and where should it be spent? EUobserver investigates.

EU innovation efforts unknown

The efforts of the EU to turn the old continent into an “innovation union” are largely unknown to business leaders, according to a survey by global accounting firm Ernst & Young.

The Acta debate - will innovation be stifled?

Opponents of Acta, the controversial anti-counterfeiting treaty up for vote in the European Parliament in July, say, among other things, that it would stifle innovation. Advocates say the exact opposite.

News in Brief

  1. UN expects over $4bn in pledges for Syria
  2. Commission wants more public data made available for reuse
  3. Study: Brexit will hit all European farmers
  4. European media face rise in 'verbal violence' from politicians
  5. Greenland PM to keep power despite poll slump
  6. Commissioner optimistic on FYROM name solution
  7. Italian court keeps NGO migrant rescue boat docked
  8. German Jews warned not to wear skullcap in public

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Sustainable Energy Week 2018"Lead the Clean Energy Transition"- Register and Join Us in Brussels from 5 to 7 May
  2. EU Green Week 2018Green Cities for a Greener Future. Join the Debate in Brussels from 22 to 24 May
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers12 Recommendations for Nordic Leadership on Climate and Environment
  4. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOxford Professor Calls for an End to the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  5. ACCAPeople Who Speak-Up Should Feel Safe to Do So
  6. Mission of China to the EUProgress on China-EU Cooperation
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersWorld's Energy Ministers to Meet in Oresund in May to Discuss Green Energy
  8. ILGA EuropeParabéns! Portugal Votes to Respect the Rights of Trans and Intersex People
  9. Mission of China to the EUJobs, Energy, Steel: Government Work Report Sets China's Targets
  10. Martens CentreJoin Us at NET@WORK2018 Featuring Debates on Migration, Foreign Policy, Populism & Disinformation
  11. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  12. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip

Latest News

  1. Whistleblowers could be enforcers of rule of law in Europe
  2. EU shelves Macron idea for 'European Darpa'
  3. Don't play EU 'games' with military HQs, Italian admiral says
  4. EU had a plan for Jordan - now it's time to make it work
  5. Time for EU to take charge of global health research agenda
  6. EU in race to set global Artificial Intelligence ethics standards
  7. Juncker delays air quality action due to busy agenda
  8. Spain makes bid for EU naval HQ

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight
  3. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  4. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  5. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  8. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  9. European Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris
  10. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  11. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  12. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan