Why does public research money often fail to support sustainable and just food systems?

The European Union and its Member States spend considerable amounts of their budget on supporting Research and Development (R&D) activities. In the summer of 2019, the EU Commission announced how it would spend the last annual tranche of Horizon 2020 – a €77 billion research and innovation funding programme running since 2014. For the Commission, Horizon 2020 was an investment in ‘new solutions for societal challenges’ and ‘innovation-led sustainable growth’.

Despite the generous support of research and research infrastructure, its contribution to sustainable futures is often questionable. Does this seem like a paradox? The way that research impact is conceived and evaluated might explain some of it.

The justification for the support of public research, and the development of centres of excellence for research and innovation, is largely geared towards its contribution to economic growth. Last July, Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said:

Horizon 2020 is generating new knowledge and technologies, and has a strong economic impact. For every 100 euro we invest through Horizon 2020, we expect to add 850 euro to our GDP by 2030, creating millions of jobs for Europeans. That is why we have proposed €100 billion for the next Horizon Europe programme, to boost the EU’s competitiveness, innovation capacities and scientific excellence.

The European research programme is expected to address societal challenges and boost jobs and growth. The idea is alluring: transforming research into economic growth will eventually make everybody better off.

Biotechnology centres of excellence

Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, has been particularly captivated by this idea. ‘Scientific Excellence’ is used as an asset to stimulate economic growth in the knowledge economy. With that ambition, Flemish authorities established extensive research infrastructure, tax shelters and other incentives for R&D activities to encourage collaboration between industry, academic and governmental institutions.

The multi-site interuniversity Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) is part of that infrastructure. This organization brings together researchers from several university departments, government representatives and industry. The Flemish government took the initiative to establish and fund the VIB in 1995 to work towards excellence in biotechnology research and transform the research results into marketable products. Today, the institute defines itself as a world-leading knowledge centre in the life-sciences. It claims an excellent reputation in technology transfer, while contributing to healthy living and sustainable food production.

But how exactly does publicly-funded research shape sustainable food production? And whose sustainability is at stake? Strikingly, these questions do not seem to have been adequately answered in the way that research is evaluated.

Measuring research productivity

To evaluate the return-on-investment, the government has established 10 Key Performance Indicators to measure the institute’s performance. These include the number of publications and patents, or the start-ups created, and the amount of investment attracted.

What is surprising is that these KPIs do not include an appraisal to assess how the research shapes healthy living and sustainable agriculture.

Evaluating research on the basis of its productivity is like measuring the GDP of a country to measure its wealth and wellbeing. If a country cuts and sells all its trees, it gets a boost in GDP. Nurturing the trees, in contrast, adds only marginally to GDP growth.

This ‘Growth-First’ ideology is not just a matter of measuring: it shapes action. When research institutes are instruments to stimulate the economic growth of a region, scientists are encouraged to work on questions that are more likely to attract speculative investment, regardless of its consequences. Meeting the performance criteria becomes the aim in itself.

It is somehow assumed that R&D is by definition good for society, but is it? Take DDT. If you were to measure the success of this pesticide only with Key Performance Indicators such as publications, patents and private investment, it would score very high. Based on standards that only measure productivity, the development of fundamentally destructive products can perfectly be applauded as something positive.

On top of expanding the ideology of ‘bigger and faster is better’, this also means that research that may support living soils, healthy living environments or food justice, but which is less prone to be translated into financially profitable technologies, is less likely to happen.

Recognizing the madness behind these abstract logics might help to open up new narratives around research and innovation. So how could we think differently about it, to support more sustainability and wellbeing?

Opening up new narratives

Thinking differently about research & development means asking unfamiliar questions about it. How do research and technology privilege interdependence and decentralisation? How does research and technology foster domination and exploitation? Who is benefiting from it? At the cost of what? Does it foster biodiversity and justice or the privatization of life? Does it transform farmers in the passive role of consumers of research and technology? How does it relate to values of reciprocity, respect and responsibility?

Making such inconvenient questions an intrinsic part of the assessment and allocation of research budgets is a necessary step to liberate research and technology from the ‘economic growth-first’ ideology. While it may not be enough, it is a step towards encouraging research practices that support food justice and life-making.

This blogpost is based on the research carried out in the framework of the ‘Healing From Enclosure’ project.  By focusing on science in society controversies, the project studied the relations between the enclosure and commoning of agricultural research and food systems in Belgium, and aimed to envisage changes towards more democratic agricultural knowledge systems that contribute to more just and ecologically sustainable food systems and to a more equal distribution of power in society.

The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 707807.