Moves to ensure the EU’s economic independence and technology sovereignty are catching universities in the cross hairs. Institutions must strike a balance between protecting sensitive technologies and maintaining open science and autonomy
Last week the European Commission unveiled the European Economic Security Strategy, in which it sets out how it will confront current geopolitical shifts and the rapid development of sensitive technologies in a balancing act of maintaining economic security, while ensuring the benefits of open economy are not lost.
Although the document does not mention China by name, it was quickly labelled ‘Europe’s China Doctrine’ by the press. This comes after a multi-year effort including, particularly relevant for universities, the publication of a ‘toolkit to help mitigate foreign interference in research and innovation’.
The doctrine elaborates on how geopolitical tensions are increasing along several dimensions, and while universities are not mentioned directly in the economic security strategy, research and technology feature prominently.
Science and technology universities are of course operating at the forefront of disciplines including quantum computing, advanced semiconductors and artificial intelligence that are all specifically mentioned in the strategy.
As institutions of higher learning, universities are committed to fostering an environment where scientific knowledge flourishes unencumbered by external pressures. They serve society by being distinct from, but complementing, other sectors such as the political and commercial ones.
In an interconnected world, geopolitical dynamics impact the ability to maintain this ideal, including through pressure to place universities at the service of politics or industry. This is particularly true for universities working at the leading edge of sensitive technologies.
Acknowledging fundamentally different political systems, ideologies, and values around the globe -including with China as indirectly referenced in the doctrine - such divergence can lead to disagreements and clashes, particularly in the political and commercial domains and notably at the forefront of science and technology.
One example of terminology used in the doctrine document is the “leakage of sensitive technologies to destinations of concern.” We can also extend this concept of ‘leakage’ to include considerations from political and industry sectors leaking into and exerting pressure on the academic sector.
Science and technology universities must navigate these challenges while upholding the principles that define them.
Firstly, it is crucial to strengthen global academic collaborations and exchanges between universities. Open dialogue, sharing of ideas, and fostering mutual understanding can help bridge across gaps that arise from different geopolitical frameworks.
Secondly, we must foster systems thinking and interdisciplinary research and educational programs. This connects and enriches efforts at the forefront of science and technology with expertise in fields such as international relations and global governance, thus equipping students and faculty with tools to navigate complex geopolitical landscapes.
Thirdly, universities should actively engage in shaping public discourse and policy debates. As centres of scientific knowledge and technological expertise, they can assume leadership in providing evidence-based insights contributing to informed decision-making.
While we strive for greater collaboration and understanding, we must also be cognisant of the limitations we face.
In our vocal safeguarding of strong academic freedom and institutional autonomy for universities to serve society, we must be careful not to create ‘autonomy traps’, in which universities may seem to be autonomous but are not provided the resources and the means to effectively exercise it, or are encumbered with autonomy and responsibilities in areas not related to their core mission.
By acting as a strong and united voice, we can ensure that the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy is fully recognized, understood and respected.
It is evident we are facing a new reality around geopolitical tensions and the impact this is having on the pursuit of academic freedom and autonomy, particularly in science and technology.
By strengthening academic collaborations, boosting interdisciplinary and systems thinking, and engaging actively in guiding societal discourse, universities can navigate these complexities - while upholding the principles that define them.
Science and technology have played critical roles in the evolution and resolution of past tensions. Given this, let us avoid an undue focus on competitiveness (economic or otherwise) when setting out geopolitical strategies related to universities, and instead fully embrace the notions of contributing to global leadership and boosting resilience.
Such strategies should therefore seek to empower universities to assume their active and guiding societal roles, avoiding ‘autonomy traps’ while unleashing the full potential of scientific knowledge and technology, including through their students, staff and academics as agents of transformation advancing knowledge societies for a prosperous, sustainable and peaceful future.
This viewpoint is taken from a speech given by Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of CESAER, the association of science and technology universities in Europe, at a conference organised by TU9, the group of German universities of technology in Berlin on 22 June 2023.