Wary EU vows to keep its research open to ‘most’ of the world

19 May 2021 | News

New global science blueprint adds caveats to previous commitment to open research, especially in relation to China, but also looks to revitalise research collaboration with US and other countries with ‘shared values’

European Commission

Brussels presented a new global research agenda on Tuesday, committing to a more cautious approach to cooperation with foreign science powers, while at the same time pledging to reinvigorate ties with an EU-friendly US administration.

The blueprint, which has been in the works for months,  sets out “nuanced and modulated” rules of engagement with foreign countries based on “levels of reciprocity, a level playing field, and the respect for fundamental rights and shared values,” while protecting EU-funded research from those seeking to abuse the system.

Among other measures, the blue print promises:

  • A shift to cooperation around new strategic goals, such as the dual green and digital transition. The EU will adapt cooperation with particular countries and regions in light of this approach, giving priority to cooperation with countries in the wider European neighbourhood, to Africa, and to “like-minded” industrialised and emerging economies.
  • To weigh openness against the EU’s evolving pursuit of strategic autonomy, which could mean revising and limiting cooperation with certain foreign actors.
  • To boost the involvement of member states in setting the EU’s global science path.

The plan, led by DG Research, articulates a new approach in which the EU will be choosier over who it collaborates with, and for what reason.

Notably, the old ethos of “open to the world” espoused by former research commissioner Carlos Moedas is gone, to be replaced by “open to most of the world”.

The language around global cooperation is now highly qualified. In future cooperation will be “selective and targeted” and apply “where justified and on a case by case basis, while ensuring reciprocity, mutual gains and respect of fundamental values”.

The shift reflects the rising concern among political leaders in Europe over intellectual property theft and the authoritarian use of technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum, by China and other countries.

According to the agenda, the Commission will publish guidelines later this year on dealing with foreign interference that targets EU research organisations and higher education institutions. By the end of 2022, officials will deliver a new code of practice on intellectual property “to raise awareness among universities, research organisations and businesses”.

Behind this wary language is also the fear of dependence, exposed horribly last year as Europe scrambled to secure basic medical supplies against COVID-19, and as witnessed more recently in the debate over limiting collaboration with close EU neighbours such as Israel, Switzerland and the UK in sensitive fields such as quantum and space technology. Critics worry this is the start of a more inward-looking EU, and tension with allies including the UK and Switzerland is apparent.

But officials in Brussels argue that there are several considerations behind the proposed exclusions, with the main one being that quantum and space are expected to become increasingly important elements of national security.

On the front foot with US

The heart of the plan sees the EU aiming to revive global collaborative efforts that have waned in recent years, and setting objectives to mirror and amplify the bloc’s own domestic agenda.

In particular, there will be moves to get on the front foot with EU-friendly US President Joe Biden, with the blueprint saying, “The departure of Donald Trump, and the US recommitment to international diplomacy seen so far under Biden, provides “the opportunity for a renewed relationship in research and innovation.”

The Commission proposes to “raise the levels of coordination and coherence between EU and US research and innovation investments, beginning with climate, digital, energy, environmental and health challenges.”

Trump had little interest in cooperating with the EU on anything. He had a general distain for global fora, as evidenced by his abandoning of the Paris climate accord and attempted withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, and was seen as an unreliable and hostile figure in Brussels.

Under Biden, the signals are a lot friendlier towards Brussels, and the prospects have improved for a cooperative trans-Atlantic relationship.

Taking advantage of the supportive mood in Washington DC, the Commission says it will host a global health summit later this year to take stock of the response to the pandemic, and to improve future pandemic preparedness and response.

The EU also wants to expand membership of two existing climate initiatives: Mission Innovation, an alliance of 24 countries that the EU that hopes will accelerate the pace of green breakthroughs, and the All Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance, a collective focused on marine research that includes the US, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina and Cape Verde.

The EU is currently working on a Hydrogen Mission with Australia, Chile, Germany and the UK, to be launched at the Mission Innovation 2.0 conference in June.

Also on the EU’s agenda is the goal of forging stronger links with sub-Saharan Africa through the Africa Initiative, a research agenda to be published as part of the EU’s Horizon R&D programme later this year.

Stronger research ties will also be sought with Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile in areas such as green and digital transition and health, the paper says.

The blueprint also proposes a joint task force with India to establish common ground for collaboration on ethical artificial intelligence and standardisation.” 

Stricter terms for research with China

While China will remain an important strategic partner for Europe in research and technology, any future research cooperation will be under strict conditions. “Reaching a level playing field and reciprocity will be conditional to developing cooperation,” the blueprint says.

Political differences with China mean Brussels is not likely to offer a broad partnership under the Horizon Europe research programme, which starts in the coming months. 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.

Previous drafts of the EU’s global plan said the bloc would limit collaboration with countries (and the suggestion here is that the Commission meant China) that have not previously provided adequate protections for intellectual property. This language didn’t make the final edit.

In another change, the published blueprint does not include the proposal to host an International Conference on Ethical and Open Science, which was originally seen as a high profile means to promote European norms for research and technology development to China and other countries.

Science diplomacy

For its part, the EU vows to “lead by example, by promoting rules-based multilateralism, pursuing reciprocal openness and exchanging best practices.”

In theory, a country located anywhere in the world will in the future be able to associate to at least some parts of the EU’s Horizon programme, the blueprint says. The EU will fund “in most cases” the participation in Horizon Europe of legal entities established in low and middle-income countries.

The bloc will continue to negotiate roadmaps for research and innovation cooperation with non-EU countries on behalf of the 27 EU governments. These non-binding instruments will set out framework conditions, which both sides are expected to meet, and identify milestones and implementation timelines.

The policy paper argues that “a stronger focus on science and technology in the EU’s foreign and security policies would help the bloc to project soft power and pursue our economic interests and values more effectively.”

At the same time, the EU will continue to promote internationally the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity and the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings. It will also expand its presence in European networks on ethics and integrity and support the World Conferences on Research Integrity.

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