Thursday

13th May 2021

Opinion

Industry lobby to 'co-decide' on nearly €10bn EU public money

  • Ten percent of the EU's total research budget 2021-2027 is at stake (Photo: Images_of_Money)

Several industry EU lobby groups are about to be entrusted again with the privilege of co-deciding how €9.6bn of public EU research funding (10 percent of the EU's total research budget 2021-2027) should be used - in research areas as essential as healthcare, transportation, energy, biomass-based manufacturing processes or IT infrastructures.

Previous experiences have shown, however, that this enables the corporate capture of EU research policy and funds, at the expense of the public interest.

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A new analysis by Corporate Europe Observatory shows that the European Commission is proposing to member states to expand the highly-problematic model of EU "Joint Undertakings" - that is, very large industry-driven public-private research partnerships (PPPs) introduced in 2014, in the EU's new research funding programme Horizon Europe (2021-2027).

This at a time when EU efforts to fund frontier research by universities and public research centres are being reduced: in the new EU "Horizon Europe" research framework programme (2021-2027), the entire "Excellent and Open Science" pillar was attributed €24.9bn, 26 percent of the total EU research budget, down from 32 percent in the previous Horizon 2020 EU Research Programme.

In a regulatory proposal for member states, who will have the final word on the matter, the European Commission's DG Research (RTD) proposes the creation of nine new joint undertakings, and chose to let industry draft again these public-private partnerships' 10-years strategy and detailed annual plans.

Should member states really accept this proposal?

Corporate Europe Observatory showed in a May 2020 investigation that putting their lobbyists in charge of drafting these documents and co-deciding their final adoption was a key reason why participating companies had been able to influence so much the work of two of these public-private partnerships.

The consequences were that while these structures had funded a vast array of research projects to develop products, technologies, and processes - primarily for the benefit of the companies involved - benefits for public health, people, and the environment were much less taken into account in the programming, or the evaluation.

Veto power

Industry groups have a veto power in these structures, and can block proposals from the European Commission they would not approve of.

Examples of projects funded by these two joint undertakings included how a cheaper manufacturing process for a key drug for helping people living with HIV in Africa so far appeared to have only helped Sanofi's profits, or the chemicals multinational Clariant receiving millions of euros to build a factory to turn enormous amounts of agricultural wheat straw into biofuels (despite the fact that such 'residues' have other important uses in farming and are important to nurture soils' fertility and sink carbon).

And this is on top of minutes from an Innovative Medicines Initiative governing board meeting which indicated that Big Pharma had opposed a commission proposal to fund bio-preparedness efforts, including to speed up vaccine approvals.

Projects also included quasi-lobbying initiatives consisting in targeting public regulators with policy proposals, PR work to win public acceptance for new technologies.

Corporate Europe Observatory had also found in one joint undertaking that industry partners, who had to co-finance the operational costs of projects in that partnership, had simply refused to pay what they had committed to.

No cost, no risk?

The solution adopted by the European Commission to this problem is surprising: not a single joint undertaking proposal among the nine new ones provides for a financial contribution by industry to operational costs any more.

The public sector is the only one paying for these costs, and sometimes twice (as with the Key Digital Technologies Joint Undertaking, where participating states are to pay a hefty €1.7bn on top of the €1.8bn taken from the EU budget).

These proposed joint undertakings are supposed to be public-private partnerships, but would you accept a partner who only does what he or she wants, and does not contribute financially to your common projects?

Accepting these joint undertakings' creation as proposed by the European Commission's DG Research would divert €10bn from Europe's public research capacity at a time when investing in the production of socially-relevant knowledge and technologies is more needed than ever.

We urge EU member states to amend the regulation to stop this corporate capture of EU research policy and funds: while it can be legitimate to consult industry when developing research plans, giving industry the main influence over these research partnerships' programming at near-zero cost for them cannot be a wise way to use precious public research funds.

Author bio

Martin Pigeon is a researcher and campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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