Deep in Germany's southwest, in an unobtrusive office complex on a loud Freiburg thoroughfare, sits a man who has been tasked with protecting Europe from terrorism and crime. Klaus Thoma, a physicist, is bald and wears a gray moustache. His white-walled, blue-carpeted and neon-lit office in the Ernst Mach Institute (EMI) is situated at the end of a long hallway. On his desk stands a bottle of apple juice, onto which a Post-it note is affixed reading, "Herr Thoma." He and his colleagues are focused on preventing suicide attacks, bomb construction and smuggling – with the help of science, with data, formulas and the development of new technical products.
Train tracks run right past the institute and every few minutes a regional train rattles by. Thoma, though, doesn't hear the loud rumbling. He is sitting excitedly at his desk clicking through colorful PowerPoint presentations with photos of high-rise buildings and airport security checkpoints. "Crazy," he says, before pointing to an animation on his screen of a 3-D scanner that can peer into shipping containers using X-ray radiography. Sitting in front of his computer, he is like a small boy with a box of Legos.
He is one of hundreds of researchers and companies who are working on ways to improve security in the European Union with the help of technology. They are developing sensors to recognize explosives and building drones and satellites to monitor the EU's external borders. They are working on biometric passport systems and on building mainframe computers designed to collect and save the data of millions of people within just a few seconds.
It all sounds important, useful and necessary. For years, the EU has been spending huge sums of money to support researchers as they seek to invent new security technologies and to support companies as they attempt to transform those inventions into products. In just the last 10 years, 3 billion euros have been spent on the effort, with Germany throwing an additional 500 million euros into the pot.
But who exactly is getting that money? And how promising are the research projects? Journalists from ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE joined reporters from De Correspondent, L'Espresso, Le Monde Diplomatique and other European media outlets to follow the grant money. What they found is a dense, opaque network of lobbyists, politicians, researchers and industrial leaders. Once untangled, an outright gravy train comes to light. Just a handful of companies and organizations profit the most from the gigantic state-sponsored grant program, which was originally conceived to improve European security, and they have received millions for outlandish ideas to find drug laboratories or to disarm terrorists. But many of the ideas never advance beyond the conceptual phase. Millions, even billions, are wasted on research into technologies that prove to be too expensive or completely unfeasible.
The grant-money trail leads to companies in France, Italy, Sweden and Spain. And even as thousands of companies and research institutes have benefited from the subsidies, nobody has profited as greatly as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a network of more than 80 German research institutes. In the last decade, Fraunhofer has received 68 million euros in EU funding, with an additional 50 million euros coming from the German government's security promotion program.
One institute in the Fraunhofer network receives a particularly large slice of the pie: EMI, where Klaus Thoma works. It has received almost 10 million euros from the EU and close to 7 million from Berlin.
Klaus Thoma has been retired for two years, but he continues to work for Fraunhofer as an adviser to the president. Few in the industry know better than Thoma how to access grant money and how to make sure that it doesn't dry up. He is expert at ensuring that more and more research projects receive financing, even more security technology is installed and yet more tax money is spent.
For most of his career, Thoma focused on military defense research, working for the defense industry and teaching at the Bundeswehr University in Munich. His institute in Freiburg initially specialized in defense research as well. But then the Cold War came to an end, which put a stop to the arms race between the East and the West. With the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, political interest in the type of military research being done by Thoma and his team likewise vanished. And it wasn't long before Fraunhofer began suffering financially as well. Between 1991 and 2005, the amount of government grant money available dropped from 1.6 billion euros to 984 million euros. Fresh sources of funding were needed and it was Thoma's job to find them.