Tuesday, September 20, 2011

War industry hijacks EU science programme

Sandwiched between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Britain had an insipid prime minister called John Major. When compared to his predecessor and successor, Major seems to have been a harmless character. He wasn’t.

Under Major, the experiment in capitalist extremism launched by Thatcher was taken a step further with the establishment of the Private Finance Initiative in 1992. That was the first systematic attempt to give profit-driven corporations large-scale responsibility for public services, including those that are essential to human life such as water and healthcare.

Major may not have been trendy. But he was a trendsetter. Here in Brussels, the “public-private partnership” model that he advocated has been copied faithfully by the European Commission, especially for the scientific research programme that it administers.

Although they have attracted scant media coverage, there are hugely important discussions taking place these days about what type of research the Union should finance. The current EU “framework programme” for research has been allocated 53 billion euros for the 2007 to 2013 period. The next multiannual programme, which will have the snappier name Horizon 2020, could gobble up as much as 100 billion euros, if some of the proposals under consideration are put into effect.

No separation between poacher and gamekeeper

Major corporations are already involved in every stage of the programme. They dominate the 36 or so “platforms” now setting the priorities for EU-financed research on everything from computing to nutrition. In some cases, the recommendations of these coalitions of interest groups have had devastating consequences. EU decisions to support the greater use of biofuels in transport – a policy widely blamed by anti-poverty specialists for increasing global hunger as it involves using food crops to power cars – can be traced back to papers drawn up by the oil and biotechnology firms that set the agenda for the Union’s research in that area.

What happens after the corporations put forward their proposals? They benefit directly from their implementation by taking part in numerous projects bankrolled by the European taxpayer. As a result, there is no separation between the poacher and the gamekeeper.

Unsatisfied by calling the shots, the corporations now want an even greater say in what they can do with your money and mine. Earlier this year, Brussels officials ran a “public consultation” exercise on the future direction of scientific research policy. A submission from EuropaBio, a group that wants us all to munch away merrily on genetically modified (GM) foods, was typical of many received from the private sector. It stated that “industry should be in the driving seat in a greater number of projects”.

Biotechnology firms are known to use emotive tactics to get their way. Syngenta and Pioneer are among the beneficiaries of an existing EU research project for “drought-tolerant yielding crops” (DROPS). While that 10 million euros scheme is portrayed as a contribution to famine prevention efforts, neither of those companies has a good track record of protecting the environment or the world’s poor. In 2006, Syngenta was fined one million reais (500,000 dollars) by the Brazilian institute for the environment and natural resources because it had defied a ban on planting GM crops within 10 kilometres of Iguacu National Park. Peasants who protested at the company’s transgressions suffered violence (including murder) at the hands of armed security guards.

BP masquerades as green champion

The Zero Emissions Platform is similarly bold. It is seeking that the EU directly fund more than 50% of the research and development costs for the carbon capture and storage (CCS) schemes its members are working on. CCS is being sold as a planet-saving activity, whereby greenhouse gases from power plants are trapped and stored underground, rather than released into the environment. But the companies taking part in the Platform are anything but green. Among them are BP, which, according to its own data, was the source of 6% of all carbon dioxide emissions throughout the world in 2004. Shell, the despoiler of the Niger Delta, and Total, that trusted supporter of Burma’s totalitarian regime, are in there, too.

If there is one thing worse than tasking polluters with managing the environment, then it is giving the war industry responsibility for job creation. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, weapons manufacturers scented an opportunity to get their blood-stained paws on EU science cash. A whole new theme of “security research” was introduced to the EU’s programme just for their benefit.

Whereas most of the Union’s programme falls within the bailiwick of the Commission’s directorate-general (DG) for research, the security component is handled by its enterprise DG. Using freedom of information rules, I obtained some documents last week giving details of discussions held between G√ľnter Verheugen, then the EU commissioner for enterprise, and the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) in 2009. ASD was adamant that DG Enterprise should remain in charge of security research, claiming that it alone could be the “guardian” of the arms industry’s interests in the Commission. The documents hint that other divisions of the EU bureaucracy might be too squeamish to hand over public money to war profiteers.

The priorities identified by ASD include work on pilotless drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), those killing machines used by America in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by Israel in Gaza. Why is the development of weapons being treated as an enterprise issue in Brussels, and by implication, viewed as something helpful to the European economy? Science should aim to improve lives, not destroy them.

·First published by New Europe, 19 September 2011.

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