Talks on future science partnership with China ‘not an easy exercise’

15 Feb 2021 | News

EU wants better access terms for its researchers in China, but increased scrutiny of the relationship with Beijing makes the outcome uncertain


Maria-Cristina Russo, director for international cooperation in research and innovation at the European Commission. Photo: EU Commission.

The effort to establish new rules for science collaboration with China is “not an easy exercise”, according to the EU lead negotiator, Maria-Cristina Russo, director for international cooperation in research and innovation at the European Commission. EU “red lines” means “a lot of work needs to be done” before there is a new roadmap for research cooperation, Russo said.

Discussions with China aim to set up “new framework conditions” for science cooperation, with the EU determined to get better access and opportunities for its researchers in China, Russo told a League of European Research Universities (LERU) event last week.

One bone of contention is what the EU sees as disadvantages facing European research institutions and companies operating in China, compared to home grown counterparts. Access to Chinese scientific data is another frequently cited frustration.

By comparison, Europe is much more open to Chinese researchers, in the view of EU officials.

Brussels wants “clear commitments” from China for a “fair, non-distortive innovation ecosystem; clear reciprocity and a level playing field; and high ethical standards for research,” Russo said. “The Chinese initially were not so keen on these conditions.”

Russo noted there are, “evident divergences on research integrity standards that makes agreement on this point quite tricky.”

For Karen Maex, board member of LERU and rector magnificus of Amsterdam University, “China is surpassing us [in several fields], but in quality and integrity they still have a way to go.”

New accord

The attempt by Brussels to establish stricter rules on research with China follows on from the highly contentious investment agreement struck between the EU and Beijing at the end of last year.

EU officials said the deal would open up China's manufacturing sector to EU companies, as well as construction, advertising, air transport and telecoms.

But many members of the European Parliament oppose ratifying the accord because of what they see as China's increasingly authoritarian approach to both pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Analysts said the investment deal also risks causing frictions with new US president Joe Biden. Biden’s national security adviser nominee, Jake Sullivan, called pointedly on Twitter for “early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns” on China.

Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, said any deal the EU seeks with China on research has to confront these realities. Even the most fundamental research cannot just ignore geopolitical implications. Cooperation and interdependence can be weaponised,” he said.

“I’m not saying every STEM researcher has to inject ‘human rights’ every 10 sentences [into a research project]. But unless you can guarantee your institution can also deal with critical issues, you should re-consider the relationship,” Bütikofer said.

The EU-China investment deal has also gained the attention of the public through social media, which might explain the low-key approach the EU has taken to the research talks. On 21 January, research commissioner Mariya Gabriel held an online meeting with Chinese science minister Wang Zhigang to discuss the future science partnership. The meeting passed almost unnoticed because it wasn’t marked in advance in the commissioner’s calendar; instead, a short record of the exchange appeared online four days later.

Beijing denies charges of forced labour on the Uighur Muslim population, but researchers and human rights activists say hundreds of thousands of people have been put into re-education camps and used as workers.

“This is not a time to be silent [on these issues],” said Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at Utrecht University.

Unbalanced relationship

As things stand, formal collaboration between Brussels and Beijing on science is limited. Both sides pledged to co-invest up to €630 million in joint research between 2016 and 2020, but €500 million of this was from the EU.

The discrepancy led to calls to rebalance the relationship. Jean-Eric Paquet the EU’s director-general for research and innovation, last year complained publicly about barriers into Chinese science.

“The relationship is perceived – and I think rightly – on the European side as unbalanced,” Paquet told an audience last September. “There is really, essentially, full access to Europe but very cumbersome and formally limited access to resources on the Chinese side.”

Political differences with China mean Brussels is not likely to offer a broad partnership under the new Horizon Europe research programme. That is in contrast to a more expansive outreach to other non-EU countries like Canada and Japan, which EU officials are courting for “associate membership” of the programme. The enhanced level of cooperation provides foreign countries the opportunity to compete for funding on the same terms as EU member states.

Russo noted the EU has moved to more aggressively police foreign participation in Horizon Europe, by adding a new clause that analysts say is aimed primarily at preventing China and the US from getting access to sensitive European research.

As a result, Brussels will be able to limit or block a far wider array of entities from participating in Horizon Europe, as Europe tries to prevent China and the US from gaining an edge in industries projected to power the economy of the future.

It remains to be seen how broadly the Commission will apply its new authority. EU officials are particularly concerned about the potential for Chinese state-controlled enterprises to take data or intellectual property from European companies and export it to China.

Any deal with China on research wouldn’t just be “win-win,” Bütikofer said. “We have to have an open conversation on which trade-offs are acceptable,” he said. “We cannot get caught up our own wishful thinking of what the relationship could be.”

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