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Monday, January 31, 2011

Think tanks: corporate lobbyists posing as experts

Think tanks can be a godsend for reporters with a looming deadline. Almost invariably, they are staffed with articulate policy specialists, adept at summarising complex issues in a few quotable sentences. Frequently, too, the think tanks have neutral-sounding names, so a reader or viewer of news reports can easily believe that they are independent of vested interests.

Closer inspection reveals that many of these “independent” bodies are in fact heavily reliant on corporate donations. This is especially the case for a number of think tanks working on intellectual property.

In late January, the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) held a conference dedicated to trade and IP issues in Brussels. Most speakers at the event endorsed the broad thrust of the European Union’s external trade policy, which advocates that standards of IP protection applying within the EU should also be applied throughout the world.

A paper written for the event by Frederik Erixon, ECIPE’s director, argued that enforcing patents in foreign countries should be a priority. “This is the area where the big policy problems are for European firms,” he wrote. “They encounter insufficient IP laws and regulatory frameworks in many countries, especially emerging markets.”

Asked why he had not invited speakers from anti-poverty organisations concerned about the possible impact of patent enforcement on such matters as public access to medicines in developing countries, Erixon said: “We are sceptical of having campaign groups [at our events]. We are more interested in having people from parts of the world with different views. For example, we have had people from Kenya and South Africa in the past.”

Erixon said that the centre had a budget of about €1 million last year. Its “base-funding” comes from the Free Enterprise Foundation in Sweden, while a number of companies have made financial contributions to its work. They include Pfizer, Nokia, Unilever, Siemens, Nestlé, Nike, Google and BP.

Hugh Pullen, a representative of the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly, said his firm had given “two one-off grants” to the centre for projects related to IP issues. “The work they do is their work,” said Pullen. “We had very little influence on the direction in which it goes.”

Dieter Plehwe from the corporate watchdog LobbyControl estimates that there are 60 think-tanks in Brussels, as well as several others in the national capitals of EU states that publish material relating to the Union’s policies. Plehwe noted that corporate-funded think tanks generally do not have to publish their accounts in the same way as foundations (such as those linked to political parties) who receive public subsidies.
“Private think-tanks have mushroomed and have now developed a strong base in Brussels under no such regulations,” he said.

ECIPE is one of several think-tanks that have not signed up to a register of lobbyists and “interest representatives” run by the European Commission. “We find the idea that a think tank should register as an interest [representative] insulting,” Erixon said. “Our role is to produce analyses and evaluations, not to lobby.”

Whereas it is mandatory for pressure groups trying to influence lawmakers in Washington to detail their activities on a similar database, the EU’s register is voluntary.

Michael Mann, a European Commission spokesman, said that a new category is being established for that register to cover groups who are reluctant to be considered as lobbyists. “Some think tanks, religious organisations and law firms do not like being labelled with the nasty ‘lobbyist’ word,” he added. “The idea of a joint register is to make it more attractive for people to sign up.”

The revised register will serve both the Commission and the European Parliament. The two institutions have stated that they wish to have their common register established by June this year.

In October last year, the International Policy Network in London published a study contending that high IP standards can be beneficial for developing countries. The paper was authored by Douglas Lippoldt, a staff member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

Lippoldt said there was no conflict of interest between his work for the OECD, a public body, and the IPN, a corporate-funded think tank, as the paper made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. “What is important is to always include the standard disclaimer,” he said. “I am quite observant about that.”

Julian Morris, the IPN’s director, said that his network is “downsizing” and no longer works on IP issues. “We are funded by a broad array of organisations, some of whom do have an interest, none of whom has any say over what we do,” he added. “That is all I can say really.”

IPN’s London office does not disclose which companies fund its work. Yet it has run public relations campaigns in defence of the pharmaceutical industry in the past. In 2004, a group called the Campaign for Fighting Diseases was formed. Run out of IPN’s office, it sought to counter arguments from anti-poverty activists that enforcing patents on drugs in developing countries reduces the availability of medicines at prices affordable to the poor. “Stronger intellectual property protection in poor countries may stimulate innovation by multinationals to serve local needs (e.g. developing drugs to combat tropical diseases),” an IPN paper published in 2005 stated.

Meanwhile, the Stockholm Network presents itself as an alliance of 120 different “market-oriented” think-tanks across Europe. Among the network’s publications is a newsletter on intellectual property issues called Know IP. In 2008, the network ran a campaign against calls by British members of Parliament for the greater use of generic medicines in the country’s health service.

Helen Disney, the network’s director, did not respond to my request for comment. In a letter to the British Medical Journal last year, she wrote: “We are funded by memberships and research grants from a range of companies, foundations and individuals. Not only do we not hide this but we list all sponsors on our website and in our annual reports.”

Her letter was prompted by criticism from SpinWatch, a group monitoring the public relations industry. SpinWatch stated that while drug-makers such as Pfizer, GSK and Merck are known to have given money to think tanks, the Stockholm Network does not say how much it receives from each company.

Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines run by the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières, said that pharmaceutical firms have been financing research by think tanks in order to influence the debate on the patenting of medicine. Such think tanks should be required to declare their sources of income, he said, adding: “Part of the problem is that this issue stays concealed.”
·First published by Intellectual Property Watch (www.ip-watch.org), 31 January 2011

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