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Research as subsidy

Returning from the big Lisbon conference on the European Research Area, my colleague Laura Hood brought an intriguing snippet back from Brian Ager, director general of big pharma's trade association, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

Ager was understandably unhappy about the long delays in reaching a deal between pharma firms, the Commission and member states over the Innovative Medicines Initiative. The IMI is supposed to pool public and private funds in a new, industry-led organisation to fund R&D. It’s one of a series of Joint Technology Initiatives that sound nice in principle but which are bogged down in arguments over the exact terms of the deal – eg who should own the IP on resulting discoveries? This, of course, is precisely the kind of substantive issue that has already killed Plan A for the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system. So, while Ager’s frustration is understandable, so is the slow progress. The EU is discovering that there ain’t no deal until there’s a deal.

But the thing that intrigued me was Ager’s warning that, in response to the IMI, the US is already preparing its own initiative, and that this could siphon away potential investors.

Away from civil aviation, where it’s been entrenched for decades, this is the first time I’ve seen such open competition between governments on hi-tech projects. This seems to suggest that the global competition that we’re getting used to for research talent is expanding into other dimensions. It revealed in a rather crude way the attempts by big firms to play governments off against each other. And it reinforces the view that public R&D funding is, in increasingly important ways, just the last subsidy allowed by the WTO.