Industry-driven research

After spending a few years overseas, I am starting to get acquainted again with Europe’s research and developent (R&D) policies and instruments. Some things are very similar to what they used to be in the 90s, while others are new. One of the new things that puzzles me is that concept of industry-driven research.

I’ve been reading a nice amount of white papers, green papers and papers of all colours regarding Europe’s plans and strategies for R&D, including the forecoming 7th Framework Programme. I have also been a bit involved with technology platforms such as NESSI. To round this up, yesterday I spent most of the day attending a seminar on writing R&D proposals for the (current) 6th Framework Programme of the European Commission (EC). And through all these channels, I can see how the EC is making more and more emphasis on having industry drive research.

The idea is the following: a few large European companies from any given sector get together and form a “technology platform”, such as NESSI. One of the first things they do is create a strategic research agenda (SRA), a document that specifies what areas have high research priority, and, in general, what are the research needs in Europe. The EC’s intention, as far as I am told, is to then take these SRAs and design European research policy according to them. Following this scheme, large companies will determine research policy rather than accept it.

In this scenario, something that concerns me is what mechanisms is the EC going to use to make sure that companies do not use this opportunity to promote their commercial interests only. I have some business experience and I don’t think that a company, large or small, would get involved in a technology platform and spend their resources working there if they didn’t think that they are going to recoup the investment, with a gain if possible. Do you think that Philips or IBM or HP are going to defend a SRA that they believe could hinder their revenue?

The underlying rationale of industry-driven research, I gather, seems to be that companies have been falling off research efforts in Europe for a while, and the EC is trying to regain their attention. However, the ultimate objective of companies is to make money, not to improve the wellbeing of the citizens. As far as I understand, improving the wellbeing of the citizens is (or should be) the ultimate objective of governments, not private corporations. That’s why, usually, governments make policy and companies are not allowed to play a part that is too large in a country’s politics. At least, in Europe. I do believe that companies, as manufacturers and distributors of goods and services to the people, have a crucial role in the R&D process. I like having companies in every research consortium I am part of, and their constribution is usually very valuable. This does not mean, however, that they should determine how European money should be spent and which research topics are “in” and which are “out”.

I have asked my question (“what mechanisms is the EC using to make sure that companies don’t take commercial advantage of this opportunity”) in a few forums, and I have never obtained a clear answer as of today. What do you think?

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