Commission tells universities and funders to bolster research security

24 Jan 2024 | News

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager takes aim at thousands of joint research projects with Chinese military universities. But Brussels’ plans are still only recommendations, and it will be left to academics and member states to implement them

Margrethe Vestager, Competition commissioner. Photo: European Union

The European Commission has proposed a series of new measures designed to bolster research security in the bloc, responding to fears that critical technologies and knowhow could be leaking to geopolitical rivals.

Rather than hard new rules, the proposals are a series of recommendations to be implemented by member states, universities and funders, like including exit plans in research and a new pan-EU organisation to share information.

“There is fierce competition worldwide for the technologies that we need the most. And in this competition, Europe cannot just be the playground for bigger players, we need to be able to play ourselves,” said competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, unveiling the strategy in Brussels today.

The proposals scrupulously avoid naming exactly which countries the Commission is worried about, and which kind of research projects it would like to stop.

But presenting the plans, Vestager gave a clear signal that – unsurprisingly - Brussels has questionable research collaboration with China in its sights, particularly projects that could leak valuable knowledge to the Chinese military.

She pointed to a 2022 investigation by journalists which uncovered nearly 3,000 collaborations between EU universities and Chinese military universities.

“This may not have been illegal then. But the question of course is, is it desirable? Is this what we want?” she asked.

When considering risk, academics and institutions should take into account whether “the country subject to sanctions or does it have a flawed rule of law or human rights protection track record, an aggressive civil-military fusion strategy or limited academic freedom,” it says.

This reference to “civil-military fusion” is a clear reference to China, which has a policy of trying to bolster its defence industry by better integrating it with civilian innovation.

Scrutinise ‘hidden’ agendas

The proposals themselves are a laundry list of checks, ideas and exhortations aimed at research institutions, funders and member states.

Funders, for example, are advised to make research security an “integral part of the application process” and to think about whether there might be “hidden” agendas for foreign research partners.

Funders also need to have “adequate expertise and skills” to actually track projects they fund.

Universities, meanwhile, need to make sure they have an “exit strategy” in place if research partnerships fail are not reciprocal, and assess whether students and academics studying in Europe on government-sponsored scholarships have any “undesirable obligations” imposed on them.

This appears to be a reference to concerns over stipends distributed by the China Scholarship Council, which force recipients to sign a declaration that they will not do anything that “harm” China’s security, and report regularly to the Chinese embassy. Last year, several German universities stopped accepting the scholarships because of fears they gag students.

“This is about bringing member states on board to remedy the current patchwork of national approaches to research security—and outright inaction in some capitals,” said Rebecca Arcesati, an expert on EU-China research relations at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERCIS).

“This may seem trivial, but it is the fundamental change that has to occur for the EU to effectively respond to state actors like the PRC who systematically interfere with and exploit its innovation ecosystem,” she said.

At the same time, the Commission proposals warn of the risk of discrimination against diaspora populations in Europe, which is a "huge danger with any due diligence and other security measures that focus on China-related risks,” Arcesati said.

The Commission’s proposal also includes plans to establish a European Centre of Expertise on Research Security, funding out of the Horizon Europe budget. There’s not much detail yet, but it would create a focal point to pool EU-wide knowledge about research security.

Only recommendations

The measures are only a Commission proposal for now – they will have to be approved by member state governments.

And even then, they aren’t binding rules, but recommendations.

Asked whether the new plans would actually prohibit the research projects uncovered in 2022 with Chinese military universities, Vestager said: “there are no prohibitions, because obviously, it's not us doing the analysis”.

“For some of these projects, they would not be legal today due to national legislation, some may be in a grey zone,” she said.

Other revelations have shown the extent of Chinese research links with Europe on sensitive technology. Last year, Science Business found the EU itself was funding five potentially dual use projects that involved China’s leading military-linked universities, the Seven Sons of National Defence, through Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe.

Europe and China continue to work extensively on military and surveillance uses of AI, a MERICS  report found last November.

Today’s proposals are about enabling “member states and research organizations to be much more savvy in how they do their due diligence,” Vestager said.

"It will be critical that sufficient funding and resources be made available for universities and other research-performing organisations at the national and subnational levels,” said Arcesati.  “Are member states ready or able to pay for research security? We will see.”

The proposals are dotted with references to academic freedom and institutional autonomy – signalling that universities and researchers are expected to take the lead in scrutinising future problematic research, rather than having rules forced upon them.

This has cheered universities. The League of European Research Universities (LERU) said in a statement it is “pleased that the recommendation puts universities at the heart of their own decision-making, thus engendering institutional autonomy in this area.” 

“While universities will be required to do their own initial security screening, it is reassuring to see that they will be supported in this through advice and guidance from research funders, and by public support structures such as national research security advisory hubs,” it said.

Science Europe, an umbrella body of major public funders and research organisations, also welcomed the Commission’s attempt to create a common EU approach. States, funders and universities "are in different stages of awareness and policies in terms of knowledge security,” the organisation said in a statement.

It also welcomed the push to get research organisations to design exit strategies from foreign partnerships. “This would help to create an environment of trust to share problematic situations within R&I organisations,” the statement said.

The research security proposals were just one of a raft of policies released today in Brussels to strengthen EU economic security, as the bloc worries about technological dependence in an age of growing geopolitical rivalry.

Also on the agenda are plans to change the EU’s dual use export regime. Brussels wants more coordination of member states control regimes, in order to “act effectively in a geo-political context”.

A more joined up approach “would also reinforce the EU ability to confront possible unilateral actions by third countries seeking to impose new export controls, including on emerging technologies, or to manage cases of pressure (on the EU or specific Member States) from third countries in response to such controls,” according to the Commission.

This article has been updated to include more reaction to the Commission’s plans.

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