Billions of EU research funding for research projects are directed by industry

Innovation in action

“We now hope to do much more business,” says Jacob Krogsgaard, from H2 Logic, a system supplier for fuel cell technology, speaking in the European Parliament in Brussels. In the “Loyola de Palacio” meeting room he shows pictures of a hydrogen-powered forklift, and his presentation is reminiscent of a product brochure. However, the “Innovation in Action” conference is not about product marketing, but about research. More specifically, certain forms of EU research funding, known as Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs), which will pump about 10 billion euros into applied research projects. And researchers are annoyed by its industrial orientation.

The proximity to the economy is no accident. Through its research support, the EU wants to make European companies fit for global competition and has brought industry on board so as to align research topics with this goal. According to a study commissioned by the European Commission, if three percent of gross domestic product were invested in research and development, this would create 3.7 million new jobs, explains the EU Research Commissioner, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

Criticism from organizations and NGOs

In this way, taxpayers’ money would be used increasingly for the purpose of the private sector argues the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an organization critical of lobbies. This would mean less research money flows into projects dedicated to such societal issues as climate change. In addition, an open letter signed by nearly 100 NGOs to the Commission President, José Manuel Barros, insists that public research funds should serve society and not “big business”. The researchers themselves are complaining about a narrowed range of topics due to the growing industry orientation. The JTIs are squeezing the creativity of top brains into a corset. “We have become the extended workbench of the industry,” says Detlef Stolten from the RWTH Aachen University.

Evolving the Joint Technology Initiatives

With its JTIs the EU wants to turn research results into successful products. Using public funds it attracts companies to participate in the JTI, which is why it designed the funding instruments as a public-private partnership. A large part of their budget is paid by European taxpayers. The rest is contributed from industry, mainly in the form of material and personnel resources. There are now six JTIs, each covering an area of technology that is considered particularly important for the European economy. (See table on page xx) One of these, “Fuel Cells and Hydrogen” is intended to bring hydrogen technology to market, for example by building a hydrogen-powered bus fleet and a network of hydrogen filling stations in certain European cities.  Professor Stolten was one of the leaders in developing the research agenda of the JTI. Now he has pulled out of the project because of its “almost exclusively industry-orientated requirements”. “In this form, the public-private partnerships represent the collapse of the EU’s research,” he criticizes. The training of young talent is breaking down because the scientific standard has declined strongly compared to previous projects. One participant in the project even goes as far as to say, “I wouldn’t even call it research”. For example, in a certain project, hydrogen-powered forklift trucks close to production merely undergo climate and vibration tests to determine their practicality.

It is also industry that determines the course in the largest European aviation research project, the JTI “Clean Sky”. The total budget is 1.6 billion euros, half of which is being borne by the taxpayer. Twelve major companies in the industry, such as Airbus, Alexia, and Rolls Royce, are setting the research topics. On the agenda are fuel efficient and low-emission engines, as well as quieter helicopters, for instance. Fundamentally new approaches are sought in vain; Clean Sky simply further develops relatively complete concepts. “It’s not about revolution, but evolution,” comments an industry researcher. “What we are doing is more like product development”, says a scientist at the Technical University in Munich, who wishes to remain anonymous: he is writing simulation software for Clean Sky.

Narrow themes directed towards big business

Many researchers are frustrated by this thematic narrowness. “Scientists are coming to me and complaining that they can’t contribute their ideas for clean technologies in Clean Sky”, reports Eduardo Maldonado, for example, from the Portuguese Ministry for Education and Research in the Brussels meeting room. The calls to tender are thematically so limited that they remain unattractive for many academic researchers. Consequently, few university researchers are participating in Clean Sky.

The consequences are obvious: Since the large companies determine the research topics, they also receive the most funding. Of the nearly 180 million euros from the EU, which Clean Sky budgeted for 2010 and 2011, only six million euros were earmarked for European universities; while over 55 percent of the total went to the twelve participating companies. The rest was distributed to other research institutions and SMEs – a total of 70 partners participated. The “Fuel Cells and Hydrogen” JTI budgeted approximately 180 million euros for 2008 through 2010, of which 131 million was planned for the industries involved.

Some of the participating researchers however understand the low academic participation and the narrowness of the topics. This is quite natural if we are to reduce the gap between advanced research and successful products. The organization “Industrial Community Research” (IGF) in Germany shows that the “valley of death” between research and marketable products can be bridged by universities and industry conjointly. Small and medium-sized enterprises cooperate with public research institutions to solve pressing research problems of entire industries, in medicine, for example, such as antibiotic resistance and the fight against germs in wounds. Last year, over 500 institutions of higher education were involved in almost 1,200 projects, which jointly received nearly half of the 137 million euros of funding from the Federal Ministry of Economics. “The projects are not predetermined in terms of results,” says Anita Widera from the “Industrial Research Alliance”. The association is managed by the IGF. Their projects are “applied basic research,” a kind of marketplace, where ideas from the research institutions meet the needs of industry.

JTIs on the other hand are almost an internal event within the industry. For instance, the governing board of the “Fuel Cells and Hydrogen” JTI consists of six members from industry, five EU representative and only one from a higher education institution. This raises the question why the taxpayer is co-financing this JTI. “The public takes on the risk of failure in research projects, freeing the companies,” says Volker Krajenski from the German Research Center for Aeronautics and Space, which is also participating in Clean Sky. However, the risk decreases as the technology matures. The JTI, for example, funded the development of a special jet engine, the so-called geared turbofan. The airlines expect this to make aircraft quieter and more fuel-efficient. The development of this geared turbofan is so far advanced that it will be introduced in the Airbus A320neo within a few years. As part of Clean Sky, a developer consortium is now working on a new generation. In this project, however, there is hardly anything new that still needs to be invented.

An improved research ecosystem?

One reason for the funding policy of the EU and the linking-up of European companies is a fruitful “ecosystem” that enables much of the research in the first place. “The development of the geared turbofan is beyond what we could do alone,” says Peter Taferner from the Munich engine manufacturer, MTU Aero Engines. This is why, for instance, Böhler Forging, a medium-sized enterprise in Kapfenberg in Austria, is developing a new manufacturing process for lighter turbine blades. Financial benefits are likely to play an important role, because MTU is paying nothing for the legwork of its SME partner. The cost of this subproject of Clean Sky is borne by the company – and the taxpayer.

Thus, the partnership between public and private is that the public pays and industry benefits. “We socialized the costs for research, but their benefits are privatized,” says Monique Goyens from the European Consumers’ Organization, BEUC. One researcher sums up the inequalities of European research funding thus: The EU has more or less lost the balance between the development of new ideas and the testing of mature ones.

By Christian Meier, Aitziber Romero and Dino Trescher

Dino Trescher

Founder at Constart
Dino Trescher, science journalist and co-founder of Constart, a correspondent network of independent journalists. As a dedicated science communication scholar he founded inscico, a research center for science and innovation communication, focusing on communication processes and cooperation between companies and academic institutions. He studied science communication at TU Berlin, Germany.