Governments are strengthening security safeguards – sometimes with unintended consequences. It is time for an open dialogue where these are brought to the table
We cannot be naïve: rising pressure from Western governments in recent years to toughen research security was bound to affect science and universities – and the data show that’s indeed happening. Risk profiling, screening and export control are starting to have effects: for example, on international partnerships, on the access of scientists from high-risk countries to work on sensitive technology at the university of their choice, but most of all on the awareness among universities that times have changed and openness is not that absolute anymore.
The history of this issue is short and sharp. Just eight years ago, “Open innovation, open science and open to the world” were the three main policy goals for research and innovation of the European Union. The collaborative, international and open nature of science and innovation was presented as instrumental for the development of new ideas and sustainable investments in the future of Europe. Since then, this notion of “triple-openness” has come under increasing pressure, including from considerations introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing geopolitical tensions, notably between China and the US. The current tragedy in the Middle East will no doubt intensify this trend.
In response to such global challenges, the EU has moved from triple-openness towards embracing “balanced openness” through the mantra, “as open as possible, as closed as necessary”. In recent years this has evolved into “as open as possible, as restricted as necessary”, and variations thereof. In the day-to-day reality of universities, “open” and “restricted” often go together. There are regular calls for more restrictions by authorities, for instance on the inflow of foreign PhDs, student admittance and international contracts and agreements with partners from high-risk countries.
Data provide a warning
In a white paper published by the CESAER university association on 18 October, we show how universities are challenged with the interpretation, operationalisation and implementation of this balance into their day-to-day operations. We surveyed 15 CESAER university-members. Given the small sample size, the results are not intended to be statistically significant; but they still provide a timely warning of the mounting challenges universities face.
First, the data suggest, over the past two years many universities of science and technology (S&T) have scaled up their efforts in the area of knowledge security at a fast pace during the last two years. The measures taken by universities and research organisations include data protection procedures, export control on scientific cooperation, checks on international sanctions, measures to prevent and address R&I foreign interference, screening of staff, due diligence of partners, and measures in relation to ethics and research integrity. The more advanced universities of S&T in this area have started to identify information that can help them in decision-making, such as bibliometric analyses, dashboards, or an assessment of vulnerable research infrastructure.
At the same time, the culture of trust at universities is partially eroding; this applies more to some universities than to others, due to the different pace and choices that universities take for knowledge security. Universities are not deaf to the views expressed in public debate: they are also confronted with statements that openly question universities’ awareness and willingness to acknowledge risks in international cooperation. A regularly heard view is that universities should be more diligent at screening, monitoring, accepting or excluding researchers and students from high-risk countries. Public opinion and public debate are also fed by the analyses of investigative journalism, for instance on academic cooperation with universities in China.
The dangers of fragmentation
A further observation concerns fragmentation. Overall, we see authorities and universities moving at different paces. While sanctions and export control regimes apply equally to universities from all EU member states, individual governments, universities and university networks are choosing their own approaches depending on their national context. Some have visa-vetting and screening procedures in place; others do not. Some member states prefer a top-down approach; others rely on the universities. This kind of fragmented approach of different speeds across Europe will come at a cost, as scientific excellence must be able to travel across borders on equal terms.
Of course, policy makers also recognise the risk of fragmentation. Therefore, Europe’s recent Economic Security Strategy, calls for a comprehensive and coordinated strategy, proposing “to improve research security ensuring a systematic and rigorous enforcement of the existing tools and identifying and addressing any remaining gaps,…“while at the same time maintaining our openness and international engagement”. This brings us to another concern: while many acknowledge that we are not living in the same era as a few decades ago, there is a genuine concern among scientists and policy makers at universities: such an approach, under the argument of security, will increasingly limit them in their academic and scientific choices, in their choices of whom they admit and recruit, on what to publish or not to publish.
We have seen how security measures in Europe, in particular under the regime of populist nationalist-leaning political parties, can have such unintended effects. With this experience in mind, some members of the European Parliament are pushing for legislation to strengthen and harmonise the concept of academic freedom across the EU.
I therefore urge us to continue and expand an open dialogue between universities and authorities, to anticipate and mitigate any potential side-effects of security measures. An open dialogue will also make restrictive measures more robust, ensuring greater support on campus. Openness, transparency, security, academic freedom and research integrity are all crucial elements for responsible internationalisation of universities.
Ignoring this need for dialogue will create more controversy about the need for such measures. I say this not out of naivety, but out of deep engagement with principles of academic and scientific freedom.
Irna van der Molen is senior policy advisor for knowledge safety and export control at the University of Twente, and lead author of the CESAER White Paper ‘Keeping Science Open? Current challenges in the day-to-day reality of universities.’