The Risk-Monger

Dear CEO,

I am really ready to give up. I have written to you, and about you, many times hoping to get you to see things more objectively. I have even offered to come to your offices (at no charge) and explain to your staff what it is like to work in a company. I can only conclude that you are not interested in listening to anyone you might not agree with. Thus I have resorted to writing you this open letter.

I read your open letter to Dr Anne Glover, and I must say, your arguments are not very coherent or useful in the debate about the future of innovation in Europe. I can only conclude that you and your funders, supporters and network do not want innovation. So your choice is to either not use their products and services, go away and leave the debate on innovation for others (like someone in a mall who does not want ice cream) or try to stop the debate (like someone in the mall who would try to shut down the ice cream parlour). Before you try to snuff out all innovation in Europe, I want to try to tell you what I believe innovation is about. It is a pity you did not accept my honest invitation to come speak at your offices to your staff, as I feel you are expressing a rather “Neo-Amish” attitude towards science and technology.

So what is innovation about? This is a timely question as the European Council meets this week for an Innovation Summit. At its base, it is about using science and technology to solve problems. What type of problems? Usually problems that societies are concerned about – great technologies or sciences that do not meet societal needs rarely find their way into innovative products or services. Innovation is about developing drugs that fight diseases and allow more people the opportunity to live longer and better; designing packaging and processing to make our foods safer and longer lasting; formulating detergents that clean laundry safely in cold water to reduce energy and CO2 emissions; creating technologies that meet all of our communications needs; or unleashing the wonders of biotechnology to improve food production and solve the needs of growing global populations. Innovation arises when problems and human needs are being addressed.

Solving the problems important to society has been an initiative that business has been committed to for almost two centuries (a history moving from hygiene and food processing to aerospace and biotech). Companies that do not continue to innovate, improve products and services and solve problems important to society don’t last very long. Today these problems include climate change, medical diseases, food scarcity, sustainable transport, biodiversity and better quality of life for individuals living longer. And companies are addressing these problems (you seem to think that companies have caused these problems, but are you really being honest with yourself?).

For this model to be effective, there must be a profit motive. I know this is really hard for you to accept, but the bigger the solution, say, a cure of a major disease, the bigger the profit. You might think that this type of incentive is vulgar, but it works (without incentives, problems won’t get solved). I take four pills a day in order to enjoy a better quality of life with the hope of living long enough to see my grandchildren. So CEO, for me, the choice of orphaning my kids or letting these drug companies get a return on their innovation is not vulgar and I resent you for thinking like that. I would hope that you change your views if you ever get in such a position of need (don’t be like my Amish neighbour who criticises my world and then asks to use my phone if there is an emergency).

What happens in the academic world when a researcher makes a discovery? Only in a few, rare cases would they give it freely to society to solve problems and save lives. Until recently, these researchers would work with large companies to ensure that this progress would reach a maximum benefit. Now the trend is for the researcher’s university to register the patent and set up an SME (have you ever visited the incubator parks around universities?). So even academics recognise that companies are important for developing research advances into innovations. Sorry CEO, but I don’t see what alternatives you are suggesting.

Oh and one other thing. In innovating and making successful products or services that answer society’s needs, these companies also pay taxes which provide for essential public services, make donations for cultural and social groups, and employ a rather large number of people. Yes, CEO, it might surprise you as you don’t spend time with people who work for companies (see an earlier blog of mine), but a good number of us still pay our mortgages and feed and educate our families with salaries earned from these same companies you are trying so hard to ostracise and, in the long term, eliminate. Ironically, you do pay some of your staff’s salaries on the charity contributions of such companies as Tetra Pak, Caterpillar and the Van Vliet family asset managers, so maybe you should lay off a bit on the anti-corporate rhetoric – it could be considered hypocritical.

Companies are not simply about maximising profits and poisoning people as you try, in a less than “graceful” manner, to depict. Companies are regulated to ensure that they provide these solutions, make a profit while still respecting the environment, public health standards and international norms. So governments need to consult with companies to ensure that they can respect these concerns while still being able to innovate, advance society and employ people. I realise, CEO, that this really makes your blood boil, but what would happen, seriously, if you succeed in stopping governments from working or even talking with companies? Innovations would dry up, jobs would disappear, and the luxuries of our western societies would diminish. Some in the corporate world say this is already happening – they wrote a letter recently offering a way out of this mess you have had a hand in creating. Your view is that these companies have no right to participate in public dialogue or express their views – and every time they do (even the most mundane or ubiquitous activities) you scream bloody murder. As you just did in your letter to Dr Anne Glover.

What gives you the right, CEO, to speak up in Brussels debates about what you believe but then demand that others cannot do the same? Do you innovate and provide solutions for society? Do you create large numbers of jobs? Do you support communities? Do you understand, CEO, the damage that you are doing to society, by continuing to spread this negative public perception of companies? There are far more people in the real world than in the narrow one you and your activists inhabit, one where you celebrate the decline in European innovation, the loss of global markets in advanced technologies, the exodus of European researchers and the withering of competitiveness in everything from agriculture, energy and chemicals to trade and investment. Sorry to be blunt, but where exactly have you added value or worth in this debate?

Lately I notice that you have been behaving in a rather juvenile manner. You have more money now, and are using it to buy journalists, name and shame individuals and behave inappropriately towards authorities (your recent blog series on the upcoming COP 19 has been making some outrageously offensive remarks against Poland as a nation and its government). I guess what I am trying to say, CEO, is that you have been around long enough in Brussels to know better – in other words: Please grow up!

Instead you write an open letter to the European Commission Chief Science Adviser, Anne Glover, where you mock her and are, simply put, disrespectful. In the letter, you add … pregnant pauses … sarcasm and attempt to demean her by using her name regularly, but referring to her as: Mrs Glover. Why don’t you show her the respect of one of the titles she has rightfully earned: Dr Glover? Professor Glover? Anne Glover CBE (awarded by Queen Elizabeth II for her work on environmental science)? Should I list for you all of the awards she has received? And still you insult her.

I can only assume that you have spent time trying to dim one of the few shining lights in Brussels because you feel rightly threatened by her. She is intelligent, scientific, honest and not afraid to stand up to you and your activist minions. I’d be afraid of her too, if I were you.

Dr Glover’s article rightly puts you in your place (no wonder the link you provided to it in your open letter was broken). She highlights how your efforts in destroying trust in industry has been hampering European innovation. When the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission says that, shouldn’t you consider this as a wakeup call???

And what was your argument against what she had written in the FT? I am not sure, because you went off on several strange tangents. One tangent was about something between EFSA and company research information that was shared with regulators (your acknowledgement), but not publicly disclosed – you did not acknowledge the many possible reasons (eg, confidentiality of proprietary information or IPR). This makes perfect sense to me – I would not want my research and competitive intelligence lost by having to publicly share it – that would remove the benefits of innovation. I know you love transparency at all costs, but you need to try to understand how the process of innovation works. Companies cannot be expected to invest millions in research to share their results with other competitors who can then exploit their hard work.

What else did you say in your open letter? It was unclear since you did not respond, opting rather to attack the European Risk Forum’s Innovation Principle Communication, but your criticism sadly lacks common sense. You are critical to the idea that the Chief Scientific Adviser should, in cases of precautionary decisions, consider any consequences to innovation and social and economic well-being. But CEO, this again makes perfect sense. If I am on the top of an icy stairway, I do recognise the risks. But before I invoke the precautionary principle, I also need to consider what would happen if I were to stay at the top of the stairs (and from that, then decide if and how to manage the risks). You cannot just invoke the precautionary principle on certain types of crop protection or energy production means (ie, the ones you and your supporters don’t like) without looking at how these decisions would affect food or energy supply. These are public goods with serious consequences – you have to learn to be reasonable. The Innovation Principle is asking the EU to be reasonable (and you are against it, go figure).

So CEO, I am not alone in believing that your attacks on industry, that your attempts to distort the public perception of companies and your efforts to sideline representatives of innovation, jobs and social actors from public debates is wrong, destructive and ignorant. Being anti-industry, anti-European, anti-science and anti-innovation (all true to your anarchist stripes) does not bring anything positive to the table. You need to grow up and be part of the process, not try to stop the process.

Some of us like ice cream, CEO, so rather than trying to shut down the parlour, you should just walk away … and let the rest of us enjoy the benefits of innovation.

I am still available to come to your office and offer you some training (in your case, it will be pro bono!)

Kind regards

David Zaruk

The Risk-Monger

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