German science minister calls for a rethink of “strong wall” between civilian and military research

20 Feb 2024 | News

At the Munich Security Conference, Bettina Stark-Watzinger made the case that research is now at the centre of geopolitical rivalry. But changing the German research system remains difficult

Germany’s science minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger speaking at this year's Munich Security Conference on 16 February. Photo: Screenshot / MSC

Germany’s science minister has called for a rethink of the country’s traditional separation between civilian and military research during an unprecedented debate on research security at the Munich Security Conference.

More normally the haunt of generals than science ministers, Bettina Stark-Watzinger’s appearance at the conference is a mark of how dramatically security concerns, particularly around China, are now part of science and innovation policy.

“It is a strong signal, that research is a geopolitical factor,” said Stark-Watzinger during a panel debate on 16 February.

Back in 2016, the then EU research Commissioner Carlos Moedas was trumpeting the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme as “open to the world.”

Fast forward to 2024, and following the pandemic, war in Ukraine, and European nervousness over China’s designs on Taiwan, the slogan has changed to, “As open as possible, as closed as necessary,” as Stark-Watzinger put it.

For her, the pandemic was the key turning point that demonstrated the risk of technological dependence, and the need to be less naïve about research cooperation.

In 2020, Europe was initially heavily dependent on China for supplies of personal protective equipment, and Brussels then had to fight for a supply of vaccines from multinational pharmaceutical companies.

“If you have technology, and others depend heavily on that, you have power. So the tech race is in full swing, and we have to be part of that,” she said.

This year’s conference was dominated by Ukraine’s weakening position in its war against Russia, and by fears of a new Donald Trump presidency in the US, which could even leave the EU exposed to attack by Moscow if Trump backs out of Nato mutual defence commitments.

For the first time, technological rivalry was singled out as a geopolitical flashpoint in the conference’s annual report on security challenges.

In this context, Stark-Watzinger wants a rethink of Germany’s “very strong wall” between civilian and military research.

“Nobody should be forced to do something,” she said, “but if I look at the US and Israel, [there is] a different story there… we also have to ask ourselves if we still have the right instruments in place.”

Uphill battle

But Stark-Watzinger may face an uphill battle in Germany to truly integrate civilian and military research. More than 70 publicly funded universities have so-called civil clauses which prevent them working on military-related research.

Despite similar calls from Stark-Watzinger last year, and the leader of the opposition conservatives Friedrich Merz, there’s no sign yet of an end to this system. Civil clauses are still strongly defended by some student groups, and an enforced end to them could breach university autonomy.

In Brussels, a similar debate is taking place, with the European Commission suggesting that the successor to the Horizon Europe research programme could permit dual use research.

Currently, it’s an entirely civilian programme, with military R&D funded through the separate European Defence Fund.

China wariness

The research security agenda, however, is less about Russia than China, which some argue has been helped to a position of technological and military leadership by sometimes naïve, lopsided collaborations by European academics.

“The world of international research collaboration has changed dramatically,” said Georg Schütte, secretary general of the Volkswagen Foundation, who was moderating the panel at which Stark-Watzinger spoke.

For decades, science diplomacy followed the guidelines of soft power politics. And today, scientific knowledge is central to the execution of hard power,” he said.

“Maybe we had too much wishful thinking in international research collaboration in the past, because we thought that as long as we cooperate, as long as we collaborate, we will contribute to international understanding,” he continued.

He pointed to one study last year that found academics in Germany have since 2016 collaborated on more than 800 papers with institutions under the control of China’s People’s Liberation Army, plus hundreds more with China’s nuclear weapons research institutes.

The report sent shockwaves through the German research establishment, with some rectors demanding answers from academics who had collaborated with the Chinese military.

Stark-Watzinger has continued to exhort German academics and institutions to be more aware of the geopolitical and security implications of their joint work.

“We have to know the country, the values in the country,” she said. “Is there reciprocity, transparency, what is the legal background?”

Stark-Watzinger has made this call before, arguing in a newspaper column last summer German universities need to better protect their research from China.

In response, research leaders said they needed concrete support to help them make smarter collaboration decisions, not just op-ed demands. German academic freedom is constitutionally protected, so any hard restraints on collaboration would be difficult to enact.

Europe is only just beginning to pool information and build a detailed picture of the Chinese research system so academics can be better informed about potential collaborations, said Mikko Huotari, director of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“I would think that we are missing intelligence that would help us strike the right balance between openness and securitization,” he told the panel during an audience question and answer session. “We have to work faster”.

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