Has Big Pharma hijacked the European Health Research Budget?

Pharmaceutical research is a legitimate use of public money. This is not the first time researchers across Europe have taken issue with the priorities of the European Union’s health research programme

a paper by Michael J Galsworthy, Leonardo Palumbo, Martin McKee

mike galsworthy
Mike Galsworthy: Science by day, poetry by night. Tweets mainly on EU & UK science policy, politics, open data – and occasionally poetry/arts stuff.

The European Commission has just launched its new €80 billion 7-year science fund Horizon 2020. Separately, the Commission has been negotiating five joint-technology initiatives cofinanced by a range of industries. However, the source of matching funds within Horizon 2020 has been unclear.

Now it emerges that one joint technology initiative, the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 (IMI2), cofunded by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, is promised €1·7 billion, not from the Excellent Science (basic research) nor the Industrial Leadership pillars of Horizon 2020, but exclusively from the third pillar, Societal Challenges – specifically the €7·4 billion Health, Demographic Change and Wellbeing stream designed for public health and health services research. An additional €683 million ring-fenced for clinical trials means that 25–32% of health and demographic change research funds are dedicated to drug development.

Pharmaceutical research is a legitimate use of public money. As its name suggests, the IMI2 is the successor to IMI1, which received €1 billion in public funds and was proclaimed as “the world’s largest public-private partnership in health”. However, the source and size of IMI2 funds are alarming. In 2012, the US National Institutes of Health came in for criticism when they decided to divert just 2% of their US$31 billion annual budget on a scheme to speed up drug development. This is not the first time researchers across Europe have taken issue with the priorities of the European Union’s health research programme.

In late 2013, the Commission published its first work programme for health in Horizon 2020. This publication caused immediate consternation, with four of Europe’s leading health organisations expressing, in a letter to the Commissionner, how they were “deeply concerned about the balance of priorities” as the programme focused primarily on biotechnology and personalised medicine, and reiterating the importance of prevention and promotion programmes, tackling social inequalities, providing faster and joined-up services, and improving health-care delivery.

So how did the joint-technology initiatives win these funds without observers of European science policy knowing? First, despite their size, they were never mentioned in the detailed Horizon 2020 breakdowns circulated widely. Second, their finalisation took place separately from the Horizon 2020 negotiations in the European Council, with no meaningful consultation with wider stakeholders. In the same way that hefty donations with strings attached distort spending by WHO,6 the European pharmaceutical industry can use a fraction of its €27 billion annual spend on research and development to leverage public subsidy, seemingly without the wider research community present to offer counterarguments.

Arguments by organisations seeking greater transparency of IMI2 through the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee have been rebuffed because of increases in “administrative burden …undermining competitiveness”. The scale of IMI2 and use of societal challenges funds to pay for it can expect to attract considerable controversy. ”

  • TheLancet, PDF Downloads, March 19 2014
  • Mike @mikegalsworthy ‘s tweet, 19 Mar 2014