Set 2% target for public R&D spending to beat climate crisis, government is urged

Socially irresponsible companies should be stripped of patents to create ‘commons’ to boost research, report argues

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 19 September 2020 09:23 BST
(Getty Images)

The UK needs to dramatically increase public research and development expenditure to tackle climate change and challenges like Covid-19, a report has argued.

Ministers are being urged by policy experts to set a target to spend 2 per cent of the UK’s GDP on public R&D investment over the next 10 years, a huge increase aimed to fill gaps left by the private sector.

The researchers at the think tank Common Wealth also urge deep reforms to intellectual property law – which it is argued have become outdated and no longer incentivise innovation.

The 2 per cent R&D target would be similar to the target the government has for spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas development aid, or the Nato target requiring alliance members spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence – which have both helped increase expenditure in those areas despite changes in government.  

Labour’s climate change policy team has seen the report, and this weekend called on the government to lay out a strategy to increase investment across the UK, arguing that action was “crucial” for the development of a low-carbon economy.

The report argues that any intellectual property – like patents on new innovations – developed from publicly funded research and development should be put into the commons and available for all to use, to maximise its benefit.

It also suggests that protection of intellectual property should be conditional on companies being held to certain standards – such as not avoiding tax, respecting workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Any patents revoked from companies that breach these rules should also be put into the commons for others to work on freely, the report argues.

This approach would gradually build a “publicly owned and democratically governed intellectual property commons” which would make it easier for innovative small firms to build on previous research, unencumbered by patents, the researchers suggest.

The report points to examples from the pharmaceutical industry, where some drug companies have restricted access to medicines that are protected by intellectual property law. It recommends that one way to increase public R&D would be for the government to create a publicly owned pharmaceutical manufacturing entity, to control drug costs domestically and “safeguard affordable medicine internationally through technology transfers and open access to medical and pharmaceutical research”.

Campaigners earlier this year urged companies working on a Covid-19 vaccine to drop patents for any resulting treatment so that it could benefit the widest number of people.

Miriam Brett, director of research and advocacy at Common Wealth, said: “While initially intended to stimulate innovation, our current approach to intellectual property (IP) has increasingly become a driving force for the accumulation and protection of assets by a narrow set of companies and interests and has given way to sluggish rates of innovation, increasing inequity, and reductions in competition. 

“The public health crisis and the development of a Covid-19 vaccine have generated fresh questions around our approach to intellectual property and research and development, with concerns raised around whether a treatment for the virus with be universal and affordable for all, or whether enclosure and corporate profits will be prioritised over access to vital medicines.”

Thomas Hanna, research director at US think tank Democracy Collaborative, added: “Intellectual property rights not only shape our economic and social landscape but have a dramatic impact on our climate.

“If reimagined and harnessed for good, intellectual property and research and development can help tackle the interconnected crises we face today, from the need for affordable access to medicines to technological advances required to combat climate breakdown.

“To do so not only necessitates a sharp increase in public R&D investment, but must also embrace a mission-oriented approach to creations of the mind to rise to the challenge we face today.”

Reacting to the report, Labour’s Matthew Pennycook, shadow climate change minister, said: “Developing new and emerging technologies cannot be a substitute for bold action now to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will be crucial to achieving a low-carbon economy and the government needs a clear strategy for future investment in this area.”

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