Between 2021 and 2027, the EU Horizon Europe programme is planning to spend around a whopping 100 billion euros on research projects. No surprise therefore that academics, industry representatives and others will flood Brussels this week to attend the huge “Research and Innovation Days” conference. The programme is full of buzzwords like “innovation”, “unparalleled opportunities” and “networking”. But the EU’s research agenda rightly goes beyond that.

The European Union scores high on living standards in comparison with many other parts of the world. But significant inequalities persist both between and within countries, and these gaps may actually be widening. Patients, for instance, find it increasingly difficult to access the medicines they need due to skyrocketing prices. Energy poverty is hitting around 10% of consumers across Europe.

New products and technologies claiming to address consumers’ needs enter the market every day. Some are indeed very useful to consumers – think GPS watches or certain health apps. Others, however, fail to meet consumers’ expectations or are not safe enough. Take for instance medicines without any additional therapeutic benefit. German consumer group Stiftung Warentest recently tested 2,000 over-the-counter medicines and rated a quarter of them as “unsuitable” due to the fact that their efficacy was either insufficient or low in comparison with the side effects.

Sometimes, instead of new technologies, consumers’ lives can best be improved through alternative models for consumption and business. These include for instance community-supported agriculture, shared cars and bicycles, and innovative business models whereby companies (e.g. in the food sector) give consumers a say about a product’s characteristics and price. Unfortunately however, EU policymakers seem to give less attention and support to social innovations ­in contrast with technological ones.

The Horizon Europe programme has the potential to offer huge benefits for consumers, provided that it offers adequate opportunities for civil society engagement, supports socially meaningful innovation and ensures that society reaps the benefits of public investments.

How does consumer-friendly EU research policy look?

The EU is committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This should be the starting point for assessing whether policy decisions about funding are best for people. Improving people’s health is an important objective of this agenda, and Horizon Europe can contribute to progress in this area by prioritising public health needs. This would mean that the EU would attach conditionalities to public funding to ensure that medicines developed with taxpayers’ money are affordable to consumers. In addition, to maximise knowledge sharing, the European Commission should ensure that funding recipients grant access to their research publications and data, whilst ensuring full compliance with the EU’s data protection rules.

The chemical sector will certainly be a big beneficiary of EU research funds. This is acceptable, as we need innovation to make our future houses, medicines and computers better, safer and more sustainable. But here again, the public interest should come first. Limiting exposure to hazardous substances such as endocrine disruptors is crucial in promoting healthy environments. Today, chemicals found in coffee cups, toys, toothpaste and many other products too often expose consumers’ health to unacceptable risks. Horizon Europe must help to reduce this exposure by supporting the development of safer, sustainable substitutes including non-chemical solutions (such as solid shampoos instead of liquid ones that are packaged in plastic and require preservatives to extend their shelf life).

We need innovation to make our future houses, medicines and computers better, safer and more sustainable. But […] the public interest should come first.

In the digital area, it is crucial that new technologies and innovations that respect and build on our fundamental rights and values are supported. The EU should find solutions to counter the adverse consequences of the digital transformation – such as disinformation, privacy breaches and cybersecurity risks. New technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), can make consumers’ lives easier and help our society to flourish. At the same time, they create enormous challenges. Again, as digital in general and AI in particular are popular policy buzzwords that will to some extent monopolise the research agenda, money should first and foremost flow to digital research projects that advance society.

Green innovation

The SDGs have a strong green footprint. Europe’s biggest CO2-emitting sectors are still energy and transport. Huge efforts are needed to contribute to the SDGs and to meet the EU’s 2050 target of a climate-neutral economy. Real innovation would mean putting affordable and sustainable products on the market, in order to minimise the impact on the environment. Research and innovation funding should prioritise solutions that make the transition towards a greener economy easy, fun, affordable and trustworthy.

Public funding should not be a blank cheque. The EU must ensure that Horizon Europe delivers innovation that holds meaning for society and brings public return on investments. Otherwise, there is a risk that this envelope of about 100 billion euros won’t deliver to European consumers.

Posted by Santos