Science in Society Archive

Slaving Science and Society with Public Subsidy

The corporate take over of science is about to enter a new phase in Europe. EU's scientific research budget is being carved up by industry. The money is to be wasted in subsidising failed and failing corporate technologies, many of which are clearly not in the public interest and also hazardous, such as nuclear and GM technologies. And, it is going to commit us to even more of the same. Our governing representatives have yet to recognise the key importance of science policy. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho urges everyone to alert Members of the European Parliament.

The European Union is about to finalise Framework VI, its new funding programme for public research in member countries for the period 2002-2006. I was invited by the Green Party to the Green Research Forum (June 6) and again to a Public Hearing in the European Parliament (June 26).

The Public Hearing was a contradiction in terms. There was no sign of any ngo, none had been invited, and the hall was filled with industrial lobbyists. I was asked to speak on 'Food safety and health risk', a minor area designated for funding. The major areas all had their advocates: Prof. Andrea Ballabio (Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, Napoli, Italy) for 'Genomics and biotechnology for health'; Prof. Jean-Pierre Goedgebuer (Laboratoire Optique Pierre-Michel Duffieux, Besancon France) for 'Information society technologies'; Dr. Antonio Correia (CMP Cientifica, Spain) for 'Nanotechnologies, intelligent mat-erials and new production processes'; Dr. Manfred Fuchs (OHB-System, Bremen, Germany) for 'Aeronautics and space'; and Prof. Lena Senneby-Forsse (Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning) on 'Sustainable development and global change'. Each argued why their particular area should have a bigger slice of the cake. A seventh area, nuclear energy, did not need an advocate because funds have been earmarked for it.

There were two more speakers addressing the new 'instruments' of funding. Dr. Roberta D'Orazio (Unindustria, Padova, Italy) spoke on behalf of SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), as it became clear that Framework VI is going to leave them high and dry. Prof. Alan Wilson (University of Leeds, UK), an ex-Vice Chancellor of a University, claimed to speak on behalf of academic scientists, and was quite happy about the new arrangement.

The public has had little say in deciding the structure of Framework VI, and Framework VI itself makes no provision for promoting critical public understanding of science, which would enable the public to have a say in deciding on research areas that should, or should not be funded. The new 'instruments' include 'networks of excellence' linking top research institutes and 'integrated projects' involving public/private partnerships, all designed to benefit big corporate science, freezing out SMEs, small innovative research groups and individuals, and certainly any dissenting minority. One timid voice was raised from the floor to Prof. Wilson, who reassuringly replied that perhaps the big networks and big groups could be allowed to 'sub-contract' research to small groups and individuals. In this manner, all dissenting voices and innovations will well and truly be silenced or else brought under economic control. This, at a time when we are in dire need of independent science and scientists simply to protect us from all the failures, and to anticipate and repair the damages that have been done.

The total budget is 17.5 billion Euros, an increase of 17% over the previous Framework V. Although this funding programme constitutes only 5% of the research budget of EU countries overall, it plays a crucial role in structuring European research and in defining the overall aims of European science. It makes no bones about the corporate agenda. The goals are to enhance Europe's global "competitiveness", to boost "European added value", and, "Business should be publicly funded if this provides incentive to carry out high-risk or long-term research which could be unprofitable in the short term." [1]

The proposed carve-up is as follows: 'biotechnology for health' and information technology are to be allocated the lion's share: 16% and 27% respectively; nuclear energy and nanotechnology each receives about 10%; aeronautics and space gets 8%, food safety and health risks 5% and sustainable development and global change 13%.

An eighth area, "anticipating the EU's future scientific and technical needs", allocated 13% of the budget, is meant to restore plurality and flexibility. But neither the themes nor the precise requirements and instruments are specified, and it could be yet another way to give corporate science more bites at the cake.

Although the Framework contains statements about ethics and supporting women in science, there is no designated research budget or means of implementation. Ethical considerations, like gender equality and sustainability, ought to be criteria that apply across the board to all research, as stressed by MEP Paul Lannoye and many others.

Is Framework VI socially accountable? This question isn't even asked, and no MEP has asked it either. The representatives of civil society have yet to realise how important science policy is, and why we need democratic public participation.

Genomics and biotechnology for health' reduces practically every human disease to genes, when everyone knows that the overwhelming causes of ill health are social and environmental. Poverty is a big killer, especially with infectious diseases, so too is environmental pollution from the hundreds, if not thousands of industrial chemicals that damage every organ system of our body including our genes. Yet, neither environmental medicine nor the etiology of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance is being addressed in Framework VI.

Genomics is the culmination of reductionist biology, more specifically, reductionist medicine, which has already gone way beyond its usefulness and becoming a liability. Drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases have come back with a vengeance over the past 25 years. At the same time, there is a rising epidemic of iatrogenic diseases caused by approved drugs and treatments. Doctors are now the third cause of death in the United States, and the situation is similar in other industrialised countries dominated by the same reductionist model.

The world desperately needs a holistic model of health to support safe, effective and affordable healthcare. Antibiotic resistance, for example, could be solved by restoring ecological balance that turns pathogens non-virulent, and also by the many herbal medicines used in traditional healthcare systems that are now found to have anti-microbial activities (see 'Radical solutions needed for antibiotic resistance', this issue).

Public finance for genomics is a blatant example of governments diverting huge sums of tax money to bail out an industry already in trouble over GM crops, and now in danger of being driven bankrupt by the human genome. But the money allocated to genomics is dwarfed by the amount that information technology (IT) is getting, just at a time when the IT bubble has burst and a severe slow down is spreading across the globe. The Green Party rightly wants "no subsidy in the area of mobile phones".

It is in supporting nuclear energy research that the Framework gets the prize for subsidising failed corporate science. Most of the nuclear energy research budget is in fact allocated to EURATOM. This is a hangover from the EURATOM treaty of 1957, widely condemned as anachronistic, and should have been replaced with an agreement on solar energy long ago. Han-Josef Fell, Green Member of European Parliament (MEP) leading the critique of Framework VI, pointed out that the money spent on nuclear energy is more than ten times that for all the other energies put together, and yet it is responsible for just 5-7% of our energy supply. "It is the biggest flop!" he said.

Europe has yet to have a coherent energy policy. With the security of supply a growing problem, fossil fuel is a clear loser, as oil runs out in 50 years, and it obviously contributes massively to CO2 emission. A comprehensive Framework V report had already concluded that it is feasible to switch from both nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable sources completely in 50 years, if accompanied by measures to stop wastage and to reduce energy use. Renewable energy sources can be brought to the market by 2010, or even sooner. Nuclear energy from fusion will take at least 50 years, if it ever works at all. Instead of abandoning nuclear energy, new fission possibilities are being promoted, when we are still plagued with existing nuclear waste problems. Not only cancers, but also immune damage are now linked to low dose ionising radiation, warns Green MEP Nuala Ahern. The Framework VI budget allocation for renewable energies is estimated at one-seventh of that of nuclear energy.

Germany legislated for increasing renewable energy cover from 5.9% to 12% by 2010. When it became law in 1999, renewable energy use increased by 1.1% in a single year. At that rate, the target will be reached long before 2010. This shows what governments can do to encourage the industry.

'Food safety and health risks' appears to be addressing public concerns. It aims to improve traceability of chemical, micro-biological and GM contaminants of food as well as research their human health impacts. But most of these are routine tests that should be required for regulatory approval, and no real science is involved. So long as the regulatory approval system is not improved, the threats to health and biodiversity remain.

Also included in 'Food safety and health risks' is the production of 'healthy' foods through biotechnology as well as organic farming. GM has already been strongly rejected by civil society, and widely acknowledged to have failed, even by the corporations. One by one they have announced they are giving up GM crops and concentrating instead on genomics and marker-assisted selective breeding. Unfortunately, researchers in our public institutions are persisting in developing not only GM crops, but GM fish, GM insects and GM bioreactors for pharma-ceuticals and xenotransplantation and even GM meat is coming to our dinner tables. It would really be a sin to subsidise this failed, unwanted and hazardous technology. The scientists involved are going against the wishes of the people, they are also willfully ignoring and dismissing evidence of hazards.

'Sustainable development and global change' focuses exclusively on technology and then only within the framework of climate change. It does not address the social causes of climate change nor the potentially devastating effects on displacement of human populations and on health. There is also no support for the conceptual, scientific basis of sustainable systems. Prof. Lena Senneby-Forsse rightly argues for a much wider view and bigger budget.

There is still a chance to influence the final carve up. Please do it now!

(For a complete text of my contribution to the 'public hearing' see "Is Framework VI socially Accountable?" for I-SIS' suggestions on areas of research that ought to be funded, see "The Human Genome is A Big White Elephant", this issue)

  1. See Evaluation of the Commission's proposal for the 6th EU Research Framework Plan and for research within the framework of EURATOM, On behalf of the Bundestag parliamentary group Bundnis 90/DIE GRÜNEN, Hans-Josef Fell MdB, May 2001.