A few weeks ago, the European research community held its annual powwow with the European Research and Innovation (R&I) Days, organised by the Commission’s Directorate-General in charge of research.

The event gathered (virtually) more than 20,000 participants. It was an opportunity for the research community to discuss the role of research as an enabler to the clean energy and mobility transitions, alternative food systems, sustainable products and much more. All these are topics of high relevance to consumers, the end users of the products and services that the EU helps develop through funding. The research we do today will be vital in determining how we will live tomorrow.  

And we are at a crossroads: The European Commission has made very clear that for the European Green Deal to succeed we need to undertake far-reaching system changes in how we produce and consume. Deep changes are coming in the daily lives of consumers. This is a challenge, as it is well known that the human brain prefers habit compared to change. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure people have trust in the changes and feel reassured that their daily problems will be taken care of and that innovation is beneficial for them.   

For research to meet the needs and expectations of European citizens, those who shape research policy and programmes must engage with citizen and consumer representatives.

That is why, at an early stage, we drew the Commission’s attention to the need for civil society engagement and to appoint speakers from that community. Our calls didn’t bear fruit, however.

“For the European Green Deal to succeed we need to undertake far-reaching system changes in how we produce and consume”

Citizens, patients and consumers are not just passive recipients or beneficiaries of research. Their expectations, their needs, their limitations and behaviour should also be central to EU research and innovation policies. That is why, at BEUC, we urge the Commission to give a more prominent role to consumer representatives in its future R&I events.

While this was not the case this year – and as this year is crucial when it comes to agenda setting – allow me to summarise the consumer perspective on what we can bring to the debate:

Innovation is truly meaningful when it benefits consumers

The term innovation usually has a positive connotation. Indeed, many new products and services bring societal progress. However, innovation is not an end in itself nor is it always beneficial. In fact, innovation also comes with risks for consumers in terms of safety, privacy and security, for the environment or people’s jobs.

There are plenty of examples of innovation of questionable added value. For innovation to hold meaning – and to deserve funding with tax payers’ money – it must benefit consumers and society at large. A consumer-friendly innovation is to make fridges and light bulbs less energy-intensive which is good for consumers’ wallets and the environment. The Ecodesign requirements help ensure that. In the transport sector, structural changes are necessary to help consumers break out of fossil-fueled mobility.  

“Innovation does not only mean releasing new products on the market, it also means designing them in a user-friendly way”

In the energy sector, consumers are expected to contribute to the resilience of the energy system by using energy in a more flexible way. Tariffs that change at different times of the day to nudge consumers into using energy when it is more convenient for the energy system can help. However, consumers still lack awareness of how much energy they use, therefore these innovations may offer little monetary benefit and won’t achieve the goal of making the energy system more resilient. Innovation does not only mean releasing new products on the market, it also means designing them in a user-friendly way, so that consumers can easily benefit from them.

Engage civil society in a meaningful way

Thanks to their close contact with consumers, consumer organisations know their needs, expectations and worries. For example, a recent survey conducted by BEUC member organisations in nine EU countries shows that whilst consumers believe that artificial intelligence can bring benefits, a majority of respondents also say that companies are using AI to manipulate consumer decisions.

To ensure that innovation is user-centered, the EU R&I policy must have the right mechanisms to involve consumer representatives from inception to implementation and evaluation. Groups representing and defending citizens’ interests must not only be consulted on relevant matters but also represented in governance structures, and given the adequate resources to do so. The implementation of the new EU Framework Programme, Horizon Europe, brings an opportunity to address current gaps and strengthen inclusiveness.

Maximise public return on public investment

As I write this blog, the number of COVID-19 reported deaths has gone over a million. Ensuring patients have access to effective vaccines and treatments will be crucial to ending the pandemic. One way of ensuring this is by attaching clauses to funding to ensure the availability and affordability of end products.

The European Commission has taken some welcome steps in that direction within Horizon 2020. Non-exclusive licensing has become a requirement in some COVID-19 calls for proposals (e.g. for medical supplies) and is being promoted through a manifesto calling for greater accessibility to COVID-19 research results.

But these initiatives should not be a one-off. To ensure that consumers don’t ‘pay twice’ for their medicines – first as taxpayers by supporting research and then by footing a high bill at the pharmacy – the Commission should develop a general policy on research funding and affordability related conditions. Such a policy could be extrapolated to other sectors that also deliver public interest goods.

Take a risk-based approach to the governance of innovation

For some years, industry is pushing a so-called ‘innovation principle’. For us this is a move to weaken the Treaty-based precautionary principle. From a consumer perspective, it is important to ensure that new products and services do not pose unacceptable risks to health, the environment or people’s values (e.g. right to privacy).

When properly designed, regulation can deliver consumer-centred innovation. An example is the EU payments legislation. Both Payment Services Directives contributed to stimulating competition by opening the EU market to non-banking payment service providers, while at the same time setting high standards of consumer protection.

“The true success of the EU R&I policy lies on its ability to address societal challenges and improve people’s welfare”

Looking forward, the EU must uphold the precautionary principle, which acts as a safety net for consumers. It is also plain common sense: faced with an unacceptable degree of scientific uncertainty and risk it would be better to refrain from throwing something on the market which might harm people or the environment.

As we head towards a new EU Multiannual Financial Framework and revamped innovation funding, the European Commission must improve the way it engages consumer representatives in EU R&I policy. This is essential to ensure that innovation meets consumers’ needs and expectations.

Let us not forget that the true success of the EU R&I policy lies on its ability to address societal challenges and improve people’s welfare.

For the full BEUC position on innovation, see here.

Posted by Monique Goyens