Commission under pressure to give guidance on R&D collaboration with Israel

06 Jun 2024 | News

The political rift widens as the research and innovation sector struggles to decide on joint research projects with Israel

Photo credits: MediaWhalestock / BigStock

More universities are seeking official guidance from the European Commission as they struggle to assess whether Israeli institutions are still eligible to join Horizon Europe projects, as the Israeli war against Hamas is raising ethical questions across academia.

In a letter to EU research commissioner Iliana Ivanova, the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) is asking for “clear recommendations and/or instructions on how to proceed with Horizon Europe projects that involve partners from Israel” so they can better assess Israeli partners comply with Horizon Europe ethical standards.

In the meantime, in a scathing letter seen by Science|Business, German MEP Christian Ehler (the European Parliament’s co-rapporteur on Horizon Europe) is asking the Commission to defend Israeli participation in the EU research and innovation programme and says the fight against antisemitism in European universities should be added to the policy agenda of the European Research Area (ERA).

Flemish universities cite article 14 of the Horizon Europe grant agreement which stipulates that research projects “must be carried out in line with the highest ethical standards and the applicable EU, international and national law on ethical principles”. Project partners from are expected to “commit to and ensure the respect of basic EU values (such as respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of minorities)”.

Flemish universities say Commission guidance on collaborations with Israel would help them reduce the administrative burden of conducting background checks for potential research partners. “All across Europe, universities currently invest a lot of time and energy in screening their academic partnerships with Israeli counterparts,” the letter says.

Israeli researchers in universities, public research institutions, private companies and governmental organisations work together with EU counterparts on a flurry of research projects under Horizon Europe.

A Commission spokeswoman confirmed Ivanova received both letters and will reply in due course. “The EU is not considering suspending or revising the participation of Israeli entities in Horizon Europe, while ensuring strict adherence to international law and ethical standards,” she said.

International law and science cooperation

The letter from the Flemish university panel comes after other higher education institutions across Europe have announced plans to suspend ties with Israel over its military campaign in Gaza.  

The University of Granada decided to stop working with Israeli partners in five Horizon Europe and Horizon 2020 projects. An association of Spanish universities also called for similar commitments from Israeli institutions.

Last month, the Free University of Brussels’ (ULB) academic council also announced it would “suspend all agreements and institutional research projects involving an Israeli university” until universities in Israel made a “clear commitment” to abide by a recent International Court of Justice order against Israel’s assault on Rafah.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Israel’s military assault on Rafah in southern Gaza is “directly hindering the ability of aid agencies to bring critical humanitarian supplies.”  UN experts also say Israa University, the last remaining university in Gaza was demolished by the Israeli military on in January.

In the fog of war, Flemish universities say they need guidance from the Commission to figure out if Israel is complying with EU ethical standards and can continue cooperating with Israeli counterparts. “Any indication on whether or not Israeli institutions are deemed to be in compliance with the ethical standards set forward by the European Commission would be more than welcome,” the Flemish letter says.

On the other hand, in its reply to Science|Business, the Commission said it has an “ongoing dialogue” with Israel as well as a “robust mechanisms to monitor compliance with Horizon Europe’s legal framework and remains vigilant to ensure EU funds are used in accordance with ethical values and international law.”

In his letter to Ivanova, Ehler positioned himself against boycotts announced by universities and asked the Commission not give in to requests from universities to suspend research collaborations with Israel. “I am abhorred by these actions by the European academic sector and by the prospect of any debate on Israel’s place in Horizon Europe,” Ehler said.

According to him, academia’s political attitude towards Israel is in stark contrast to the higher education sector’s failure to act at all against Russia after after Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Universities took action, partly forced by governments, only after Russia initiated the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ehler is also blasting universities for pursuing collaborations with Chinese counterparts despite glaring human rights issues in the communist nation.

“The fact that Russia occupied Crimea and was fostering a war on Ukrainian territory since 2014 which also included grave human rights violations was ignored by the academic community altogether,” Ehler said in his letter to Ivanova. “It is also a stark contrast to the extensive collaborations European universities continue to maintain with Chinese universities, despite the well documented human rights violations of the Chinese government.”

As the conflict escalates, EU foreign ministers decided to convene a meeting of the Association Council that governs relations between the bloc and Israel. This may be a first step towards EU sanctions against Israel, despite disagreements among member states.

Ehler said he is deeply concerned about “the European treatment of Israel and its researchers in recent weeks.”

“It is clear for me that the reaction of the academic sector is a fundamental attack on the place of the Jewish people within the European community, and specifically on the place Israeli researchers in the European Research Area. This is totally unacceptable and goes against the core of the European project,” he added.

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