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The big tech and big pharma invasion: Follow the money trail


James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

Because governments have outsourced so many of their scientific and other research and development programmes to big business, the resultant state policies are biased towards these international multibillion-dollar companies – companies to which developing nations are increasingly indebted.

Since World War 2, governments globally have increasingly relied on research and technology provided by the private sector. This is because private companies in the West, especially in America, played a huge role in overcoming Nazi Germany. This tendency has gained even more momentum over the past two to three decades using the now all-familiar terms of public-private partnerships, outsourcing, networking, the need for downscaling, and efficacy and efficiency. One of the consequences is an erosion of the scientific and technical base of government, while building the same in the private sector.

In the years past, the lower to lower-middle management levels in government were occupied by researchers and scientists. They were responsible for the scientific services within government and comprised large teams conducting research at multiple locations supported by substantial budgets either in-house or through state-owned research units. The research and technical staff had access to high-quality research facilities and administrative support.

The upper-middle to top management levels concerned themselves with policymaking, while the executive branch and the politicians were responsible for strategy and execution.

In South Africa, broadly speaking and acknowledging the fact that there might be various permutations, this translated to directors being the chief scientists or subject specialists supported by their deputy and assistant directors and their members of staff. Directors were often PhDs with 20 years or more experience and considered the best resource people in the country on a specific topic. Chief directors and the deputy directors-general were responsible for policies, while the directors-general, together with the ministers, were responsible for strategy and execution. This typological landscape has changed dramatically.

Currently, members of staff up to and including the director are mainly contract managers responsible for drafting tenders, adjudicating over tender evaluation processes and managing the projects once the tenders have been awarded. While this is a demanding task in and by itself, the scientific and technological capacity and capability, as well as institutional memory, are being developed outside of government structures at the expense of the public service while government research infrastructure suffers decay.

While the logic of outsourcing might make good sense economically, unfortunately it also provides ample opportunity for dubious transactions at exorbitant prices. Yet, there are some far more startling consequences.

The research generated through the outsourced contracts influences the governmental policies being made in at least two ways, namely by who conducted the research, and how the research and the stakeholder consultation process was conducted. Invariably, both the researcher and the research method followed have a direct bearing on the outcome of the research and the policy recommendations emanating from it. One obvious but often neglected fact is that the researcher will not follow a research method that will lead to outcomes detrimental to him/her; all policy recommendations forthcoming will invariably favour the researcher’s point of view or objectives. It is therefore important to understand the character and nature of the researcher and/or research entity, the “who” who does the research.

In a cash-strapped environment, such as is the case in most developing countries, money for research and scientific development is considered a luxury compared with urgent and pressing social and humanitarian needs that must be addressed. Research budgets are therefore relatively small in both the public and private sectors. Much is therefore to be gained from research done abroad in affluent countries as well as from support via philanthropic concerns.

In affluent countries, it is standard practice for large companies to have foundations. Money is directed from the companies towards the foundations on a tax-free basis with the understanding that the foundations will spend their considerable resources on the wellbeing of people and the world through various avenues, be this health, environment, education. Foundations also develop and support large research and technology ventures as well as think-tanks and laboratories to the advancement of knowledge.

On a prima facie basis, there is nothing wrong and all is legal and even commendable, but conflicts of interest can and do arise, with serious consequences and unparalleled ethical implications.

Once the government requires information about a certain topic, it issues a tender, to which the research centres, think-tanks, laboratories and other foundation-supported entities such as universities and a multitude of other hopefuls, submit a proposal. These foundation-supported entities have good resources with big teams comprising highly qualified staff, excellent state-of-the-art equipment and long track records with vast networks. They compete against Lone Joe operating from his garage, so to speak. There can only be one realistic and justifiable winner, even if there are huge price differentials favouring the foundation-supported entity. Thus, the process of research capture starts while having a debilitating impact on the independence and credibility thereof.

One of the consequences of this outcome is that the entity winning the tender is twice supported by the public. First by buying the products or services rendered by the company from whose foundation it receives support, allowing it to avoid paying company taxes, and second by means of personal income taxes paid to the government. The entity which won the tender, however, is bound to deliver a product to the government that is at least not contradictory to the interests of its benefactor: the researcher will not follow a method that is detrimental to itself or its financial supporter/s. It will serve its own interest.

Government, on the other hand, receives a report or a product that is heavily biased towards the benefactor having used taxpayers’ money to pay for a product from an entity which benefits from a tax-avoidance scheme; knowledge and science development neatly controlled in an iron-clad cluster. The resultant governmental policies are hence also biased towards these international multibillion-dollar companies, companies to which developing nations are increasingly indebted as they purchase products from them, leading to an increase in income and welfare inequality.

With the system of technocracy – which is a social and governmental system influenced and controlled by experts, science and technology – well entrenched, it provides ample opportunity for the perpetuation and deepening of the financial system that funds research and science development described above. Legal it seems to be, but ethical and even desirable it most certainly is not.

By following the money trail, we know why the world is combating a global pandemic in the way it does. Big tech and big pharma, twice supported by the electorate, have invaded the space that used to be occupied by public servants – governments are now dancing to the tune of billion-dollar dynasties. Commercial interests institutionally entrenched through public-private partnerships are now exhorting payments from the populace and the governments of the world.

Therefore, not because of some conspiracy theory, not because there is no need for immediate assistance in treating the suffering ill and resuscitating our economies, but because of the abominable and undiluted lust for money and power by a few super-rich and the system in which it is embedded, I cannot support the current vaccination programme.  

Africa, be proud; do not bow before the commercial imperialists. Repurpose the billions allocated and invest in developing and supporting human health and immune systems that will lead to long-lasting and resilient recoveries, and a legacy of healing to boot, by and through the restoration of our land, our food production system and our people, while growing our economy. DM


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