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Mind tricks no substitute for science

By August 30, 2018 No Comments

By Conor McGlynn
September 6, 2018

The Task Force Awakens

A malaise is spreading among the politicians of Europe. In capitals across the continent, worries about Europe’s place in the world and the prospect of losing ground to China and the US are becoming more pronounced. This is particularly true in the field of technology, where EU leaders fear being eclipsed by the rival superpowers.

Earlier this year, EU Commissioner Carlos Moedas warned that “Europe has missed out on market-creating innovation” in the last decade. He announced the launch of a European Innovation Council to promote new technological development across the continent, in the hopes of a centralised EU response to the problem.

French President Emmanuel Macron is similarly concerned about Europe’s standing in the global technology race. Last week, he said that Europeans are “paying the price of several decades of a Europe that has become bland, weakened and hasn’t made enough suggestions.”

Macron seems to have turned to science fiction for solutions. He is placing his faith in a JEDI – that is, a Joint European Disruptive Initiative – to put Europe at the forefront of innovation in the world.

JEDI is proposed as Europe’s answer to the United States’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It will operate through private channels, launching ‘disruptive innovation’ challenges aimed at research institutes, complete with lucrative multi-million euro funding awards. The initiative has already received backing from the French and German governments, with Macron’s government pushing for the programme to start funding projects immediately.

The Regulators Strike Back

There are reasons to be sceptical of this effort to kickstart innovation and technological development on the continent. Foremost among these are the barriers the EU itself places to innovation, in the form of constrictive and opaque regulation.

The much publicised European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on new plant breeding techniques in July provides a perfect example of this. At the same time as Europe’s leaders claim the EU can become a leader in technological innovation, its top court has put in place the conditions for a severe curtailment of cutting edge biotechnologies such as the targeted gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. In so doing, the count went against the advice of its own Advocate General, and the scientific consensus, and added to a trend of the EU stifling innovation in strategic areas based on extreme interpretations of the ‘precautionary principle’.

The ECJ ruling does not in itself bring an end to new developments in gene-editing. It does, however, create onerous regulatory hoops that any new technology will have to pass through. The political sensitivity of genetic engineering generally makes meeting these requirements very difficult.

The damage from the ruling comes predominantly from the knock-on impact it will have on research funding. In order to get research funding, new technology ventures must show how they will generate a return. In such a tight regulatory environment, with little prospect of gene edited crops being authorised in Europe, demonstrating that research can be successfully commercialised is near impossible, meaning that research grants will very quickly dry up. After all, only two GM crops have ever been authorised in Europe, while many countries still maintain complete bans.

Lack of funding will drive away many of the fledgling gene editing companies operating at the cutting edge of the science. A legal and regulatory environment that requires concerted political action simply to authorise research into new technologies strangles innovation, and makes the vision of a Europe at the forefront of technological progress seem extremely distant.

AI is another area in which Europe is strangling its own potential for innovation. This is happening partly due to lack of funding: the Commission’s long-awaited AI strategy, which came out in April of this year, includes a pledge for €20 billion investment in AI by 2020. This pales when compared to the $1 trillion pledged by China with the aim of becoming the world leader in the field.

Like gene-editing, however, what is more damaging to innovation in AI is the regulatory burden the EU places on startups in the field. This month, the European Parliament will vote on a law that will make data-mining by small firms next to impossible. If the vote passes, startups that do not already have access to large databases of users will be unable to gather the data necessary to create and improve the machine learning algorithms that are fundamental to developing AI systems. This will bring innovation in many AI fields to an effective standstill in Europe.

Return of the JEDI

On this basis, politicians like Macron are right to worry about Europe’s place in the technology race. Unless the EU radically rethinks its approach to regulation in these areas, the momentum of technological progress will almost certainly be with the US or China instead. If they are serious about making Europe a leader in innovation, the EU’s leaders need to alter the political payoffs involved in authorising new technologies.

On GMOs and now on gene-editing, EU law provides too much incentive to do nothing. Approving a new plant breeding technique or genetically modified crop at Member State level carries little political upside but a considerable risk of attack from opponents, so why take the risk? The precautionary principle is one thing; stifling technological innovation for political reasons is another. Too often, Europe tends towards the latter.

Similarly, for AI, many politicians are supporting the data-mining law for short-term political reasons, while neglecting the long-term impact on innovation. If Macron is serious about asserting Europe as a world leader in innovation, this regulatory morass must be fixed.

The more difficult problem for plant science innovation is tackling science illiteracy amongst the population generally, which makes supporting things like GMOs and gene editing politically toxic. A good start would be to tackle anti-science attitudes within the EU institutions themselves. Instead of providing a platform to anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, EU lawmakers should stand up for evidence-based decision-making, even in cases when it is unpopular.

If the Force is to be with Europe, politicians must address the EU’s own systemic barriers to innovation. If they do not, an army of JEDIs will not be enough to prevent European technological progress from falling flat.

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