EU scientists 'suppliers for the economy'
By Philip Ebels
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.
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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.”
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.”
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.