Viewpoint: Make sure that openness remains in EU research and development policy

09 Feb 2023 | Viewpoint

International economist Luc Soete, a key advocate of open science, explains and reflects on the EU’s growing support for ’strategic autonomy’ in science and technology

Luc Soete, emeritus professor of international economics. Photo: Vrije Universiteit Brussel

This article is part of a series of opinions Science|Business is publishing on the EU’s strategic autonomy agenda, and its impact on global R&D. A complete report will be published and discussed at the annual Science|Business Network conference 7 February.


As an international economist, I might well be perplexed by the EU’s growing interest in ”strategic autonomy.” This is the doctrine which holds that in order to boost its own technological strength and resilience, the EU may now choose to exclude allies from sensitive R&D projects or boost state support for its own tech industry.

After all, I am talking here about the EU, the institution that received in 2012 the Nobel Peace Prize for having illustrated how trade liberalisation amongst countries would bring not just welfare but also peace; the institution illustrating Anglo-American philosopher Thomas Paine’s famous statement that, ”If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable, it would extripate the system of war.” This idea, that everyone benefits from free trade, has been one of the central contributions of international economics. Two centuries ago, British economist David Ricardo showed how two countries could benefit from trading two commodities: Portugal and the UK trading wine for cloth.

So what happened to my discipline’s most fundamental insights if even the EU, the supra-national region in the world that most strongly favoured free trade principles, believing in their welfare gains, now seems to have suddenly changed its mind?

’World without walls’

Was, as University of California-Berkeley law professor David Singh Grewal argues, putting the concept of a ”world without walls” a world-historical gamble? As he says, did this ”neoliberal agenda for global free markets” undermine itself? Should the EU be viewed as a neoliberal attempt at tying countries together through commerce, and assigning ”a market-led order pride of place in setting the terms of international relations”? Under this view, he says,”states are supposed to defer to and enforce the private cross-border orderings of the global market, which mainly means letting a transnational price system determine where production goes..., and thus who gets what.”

Sufficient material for any international economist to get somewhat perplexed. But then of course, I have been in my past academic career much more of an alternative trade theorist, rather critical of the underlying ”neo-classical” – today Grewal would call them neo-liberal – assumptions behind the welfare gains of international trade. I even wrote with two colleagues, Giovanni Dosi and Keith Pavitt, an alternative textbook about it back in the late 80’s: ”The Economics of Technical Change and International Trade”. I hope readers forgive me this long self-citation, but it illustrates how I view the matter:

”Once upon a time, international trade theorists like to tell each other, there was a paradise where everybody lived efficiently, producing and trading whatever was demanded in the most efficient combination. Then an angel came and stamped on each person’s forehead a different colour, you could say a national flag, allowing him or her to produce and trade only with capital and land with the same colour. The diaspora which followed led to large differences in efficiency accross the world....

"Since that unhappy moment, international trade theorists – by definition economists with a world rather than national welfare vision – have been trying to show how to get back to this paradisiacal situation.”

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t hold once the dynamics of production technology and innovation are taken into account. There is no return possible to paradise. Place matters: ”it does matter whether a region or country is specialised in mushroom production or silicon chips”. 

The reason for autonomy

So the new-found belief in ”strategic autonomy” investments in Europe as a ”place-based” response to current geopolitical tensions is not that perplexing. The EU has probably been confronted more than other regions in the world with the local consequences of ensuing global crises, starting with the financial crisis of 2008-9, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and today the war in Ukraine. Each time the external dependency of particular EU member states, whether in terms of capital imbalances, global value chains or fossil fuel supply, translated ultimately into an overall EU vulnerability. The desire to address that vulnerability through increased attention being paid to strategic autonomy seems logical.

What is more perplexing, however, is the way the broader notion of ”openness” seems to have been put aside and only given lipservice in the European policy language. Officially, many in Brussels have recently taken to adding the prefix ”open” to the new policy term, as in ”open strategic autonomy”. But it must be more than a linguistic flourish. For me, Europe is doomed to fail in its new-found belief in ”strategic autonomy” if it is not built on openness. 

Just five years ago, a special committee which I chaired for then-EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas issued a report on the ”three O’s”: open science, open innovation and open to the world. It saw openness as:

“First, we emphasise policy measures positioning Europe, as it always was, as open knowledge gatekeeper for addressing societal, global challenges confronting the world as a whole, and Europe in particular…. The principle of “openness” should ultimately be seen as societies’ guarantee to sustainability, as the conceptual framework for addressing the new Sustainable Development Goals. Second, we propose policy measures to develop openness as inclusive tool: openness as “commons”. The debate on such “inclusive openness” started from within the scientific community with the debate on open science access but includes now also openness with respect to global networks and local communities. Third, we highlight the role of openness with respect to experimentation and regulation. To “embrace change” implies also questioning now and then existing regulation and being open to try “new things”, to explore innovation, to elaborate green deals, to test and engage in local co-creation, in living labs of all sorts, in designing experimental areas in cities combining new opportunities for exchanging and extraction value.”

Times change. It might seem that the addition of the word “open” to the new policy of strategic autonomy is the only survivor for policy makers of that 2018 report. But for me it is a precondition.

Staying open

Without openness, the EU and most of its member states, confronted now with a rapidly retiring baby boom generation and exploding shortages in skills and talents, will fail to develop any strategic autonomy, let alone maintain its position in science, research or innovation. Just ask any Dutch university or high-tech firm.

It is also openness to the rest of the world which will enable Europe to continue to play an increasingly out-of-proportion role in international standards-setting in environmental and climate targets or social norms and values. Technological catching-up, even technological leap-frogging, has always been an intrinsic part of global development. As described in American economist Paul Krugman’s famous North-South model (1979), in which technological innovation is the driving force of global development: ”like Alice and the Red Queen, the North must keep running to stay in the same place”.

Broadening such technological innovation to green technologies, social innovation, sustainable development and other pressing issues, it is ultimately Europe’s predicament that it has to keep running to stay in the same place. However, not on its own but with the help and support of all its friends.  

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