Access to information an obstacle in EU-China joint research

06 Apr 2020 | International News

The EU is investing €500M of Horizon 2020 funding in collaborative projects with scientists in China. EU researchers say this is creating opportunities - but Chinese restrictions on data sharing can be a problem

EU-Chinese joint research has grown in recent years, but so too has a problem: obstacles to data sharing between scientists.

Brussels and Beijing have agreed to promote open access to research data, but European scientists say restrictions on data sharing in China are a barrier - though they stress the value of working with Chinese counterparts.

The EU and China pledged to spend up €630 million on joint research projects over 2016-2020 through the EU-China Co-Funding Mechanism (CFM), with the EU putting in €500 million from the Horizon 2020 research programme and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology RMB1 billion (€130 million).

CFM offers co-ordinated, parallel grants for researchers on either side, to work together on joint projects of interest to both Beijing and Brussels, for example, in agriculture, biotechnology, urban development, green manufacturing and clean energy.

For Luuk Fleskens, associate professor of soil physics and land management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, CFM provided an opportunity to build on existing partnerships. Fleskens is coordinator of the ‘Interactive soil quality assessment in Europe and China project’, (iSQAPER), a joint effort to generate knowledge and data that helps land users assess their soils and make well-informed decisions about its use.

“We have a longer-term collaboration with different partner institutions in China,” said Fleskens. “Building on these partnerships is an important thing. You can’t have scientific progress in isolation, you need to collaborate.” When the EU put out a call that required applicants to bring Chinese partners on board, “We made sure that we ticked that box,” Fleskens said.

Limits on sharing research data

While the Chinese partners in iSQAPER shared all the data from experiments carried out as part of the project, data collected for other purposes is harder to access. “In Europe we have the Joint Research Centre, which has several layers [of data] on soil threats,” Fleskens said. “In China they have similar soil threat databases. But although the Institute of Soil Science in China was a partner in projects, they could not share their data [for it] to be included in our assessment.”

It wasn’t clear exactly why, but Fleskens said, “I have the feeling that this was seen as a strategic dataset.” Assurances that Fleskens and colleagues would use the data discreetly had no effect. “That conversation was very difficult,” he said.

Wang Fei, professor of conservation and development at the Institute of Soil and Water Conservation in Yangling, said some data could not be incorporated into iSQAPER analyses due to changes in how the land was used. “The main problem is the land use changed too fast, it is not easy to find croplands with the same management over the long term” said Wang. “The conditions are changing all the time,” he said.

According to José Gómez, research scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Córdoba, Spain, some of his Chinese colleagues even have difficulties in sharing data they collected themselves. Like Fleskens, Gómez is also working on soil quality, as coordinator of ‘Soil Hydrology research platform underpinning innovation to manage water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems’ (SHui), a partnership between Spanish, Israeli, and Chinese researchers. The project has a €4.9 million Horizon 2020 grant and a Chinese grant of roughly €500,000.

“The big difficulty that we are having is that there is a big difference between Europe and China in terms of who owns the data,” said Gómez. “In Europe, if I run an experiment, I am responsible for those data and I don’t need to ask for permission to share [them].” But in China, data is owned by the institution. “It’s not as easy as in Europe to share the raw data. Apparently there are many layers for getting permission to do that,” he said. That is both contrary to the open data ethos and poses problems in meeting deadlines. “One of the objectives of the project is to have a platform of open data,” Gómez said. At the same time, the data needs to be uploaded on schedule to comply with the EU grant agreement, and while SHui hasn’t missed any deadlines yet, Gómez said there is still “a big delay.”

While the EU and China agreed to make open access a condition of joint research, meaning published articles and data must be available without charge, there is no requirement to publish in the first place, either in the EU or in China.

How much unpublished data research partners should share with one another in confidence is less clear, although Brussels and Beijing have committed to improving “reciprocal access to science, technology, and innovation resources,” according to the Commission’s roadmap for science and technology cooperation with China.

Mismatched deadlines

Jessie Zhang, a China expert at EUrelations, a consulting firm that advises researchers on funding programmes, said it’s “not unusual” for Chinese scientists to need permission from senior colleagues to share data research that hasn’t yet been published. Furthermore, because joint projects under the CFM rely on separate European and Chinese grants, the reporting deadlines differ. As a result, Chinese researchers may be reluctant to share data with the EU until after they’ve first supplied it to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, which funds their work.

“If there are any publications out of a project, in the end, it’s all public.” said Zhang. “All public funded projects need to be accessible and online.” However, she noted, searching the databases can be very difficult for someone who doesn’t speak good Chinese.

Whether or not data sharing is a problem typically boils down to the data’s competitive value, said Lidia Borrell-Damian, secretary general of Science Europe, which represents national funding agencies. “There are niches or special fields of research in which the sharing of the data is not a problem, because it’s far enough away from immediate use for industry, therefore competitiveness is not at stake,” she said. Nuclear physics is one case in point. “This is different when we go to other domains, such as biotech or engineering,” where the research is “close to the market.” Examples could include information on genetically modified crops, or on the use of pesticides in China that are banned in the EU.

Fleskens said there were limits on iSQAPER’s freedom to involve Chinese farmers. “The idea was to have a range of different farmers, to really look at the wide cross section of the farming community,” he said. That went well in Europe, but in China, most of the work was done on large farms owned by research institutes. “We had to convince them to also work with small farmers,” Fleskens said. In the event, of four case study sites, only one was not affiliated to a research institute. When Fleskens and his colleagues wanted to involve other farms, they were told “our farmers all do the same, so there is no point.”  Fleskens was unconvinced, “I think that can’t be true. There’s always differences between farmers.”

It’s not the case that all Europeans working on joint research with China report such problems. Bernhard Müller, senior professor of environmental sciences at the Technical University of Dresden, said he didn’t encounter any difficulties accessing data while working on TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA, a Horizon 2020 project aiming to improve quality of life and promote sustainability of cities based on best practices in Europe and China. “Up to now, we did not have the feeling that they were not sharing anything,” said Müller. Chinese colleagues weren’t afraid to speak critically about sustainability policy, he said.

Gómez’s experience is different. There was a tendency towards “not being openly critical of big pictures in technical fields,” and Chinese researchers were very wary of criticising established techniques, especially in group discussions.

Despite the challenges, both Fleskens and Gómez believe joint research with China is valuable. One of the key outputs of iSQAPER is a standardised, app-based method for assessing agricultural soil quality. Fleskens said it would have been impossible to develop an app that could be used globally if the research had been confined to Europe.

Meanwhile, Gómez speaks warmly of the researchers and students he met on trips to China. “When you visit their experiments and you talk to these teams, you see they have a lot of good scientists, a lot of postdocs, and a lot of undergraduates working in the projects,” he said.

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