Almost 50 nations, including the US and China, are participating in an EU-led effort to hash out what is meant by research ethics, open science, and academic freedom. But the outcome is uncertain
A year-long international dialogue to define “principles and values” in research has kicked off, with almost 50 countries attending an EU-convened conference to start what could be a contentious discussion.
Representatives from the US, China, Japan, India, Brazil, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK and others joined EU member states for the first research “multilateral dialogue”, which took place in hybrid format on 8 July.
The talks are a Commission initiative that grew out if its Global Approach to Research and Innovation, a policy initiative launched last year that takes a more cautious approach to collaboration, particularly with China.
That document says the EU should invite global science partners to hash out what they mean by terms like open science, gender equality, intellectual property rights, academic freedom and research integrity.
The idea is that if countries are on the same page about these terms, international collaboration will flow more smoothly. Cooperation has come under increasing strain due to rising tensions between the west and China, and largely severed between Europe and Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine. Now this dialogue has begun.
“Given that modern science is a global activity, and given its criticality to virtually every challenge we must confront, it is important that we have broadly and globally accepted understandings of the principles that underpin how science is conducted,” said Peter Gluckman, president of the International Science Council, a grouping of more than 200 research organisations, at the opening of the dialogue last Friday.
Gluckman defined the core of science as an “openness and willingness to revise conclusions in the face of constructive informed critique”.
He also warned that in the global south, science is too often seen as being “conducted for the benefit of the global north.”
In addition, Gluckman wants more focus on the career pressures that can erode the integrity of academics. The academic system has become an “intensely competitive and egotistical system”, rushing researchers into poorly thought-through studies that have led in some subjects to a reproducibility crisis, he warned.
The rest of the discussion was not made public. One member state representative who attended said they were pleased with how many countries had attended, but predicted there would difficult conversations ahead.
On some issues, like research ethics or integrity, it may be relatively easy to find common ground. But the issue of academic freedom could split democracies and autocracies around the table and make a common understanding of the term difficult.
Rules of the road
In parallel to the EU’s effort, the G7 group of democracies, through a subcommittee known as SIGRE, is working up its own definitions of research integrity and security.
Nor is the Global Approach to Research and Innovation the first European attempt to pin down the rules of the road for global scientific collaboration as tensions with China have ramped up and academic links become increasingly politicised.
In 2020, EU countries signed the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research, which concluded that “freedom of scientific research is acknowledged as an important element in establishing our global collaborations.”
The Bonn Declaration was followed in March this year by a Marseille declaration, which again stressed the importance of freedom of research, plus the circulation of researchers, gender equality and other key values.
Yet European countries continue to collaborate extensively with China, despite Beijing’s strict and growing controls over campus discussion and academic debate. A report from King’s College London released last week found that China was the top or second most important partner in every G7 democracy, plus the Scandinavian and Baltic states.
As for the dialogue that started last week, the next step will be a series of workshops between autumn 2022 and early 2023, each focusing on a different topic like academic freedom, research integrity or open science.
Then, in the first half of 2023, a stocktaking meeting will attempt to wrap up what countries have concluded.
But for now, it’s not clear whether this will lead to a formal agreement on research and innovation values and principles between governments. It could be left simply as a dialogue that helps future understanding over common rules for research.