Viewpoint: Rethinking EU strategy for R&D collaboration

11 Mar 2021 | Viewpoint

Stockholm’s three big universities have been studying new ideas in R&D strategy: knowledge diplomacy, strategic priorities and ‘samordning’

Dan Andrée is senior advisor for EU R&I policy for the Stockholm Trio Alliance of Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University.

The European Commission is in the process of rethinking its approach to international R&D collaboration, as announced by EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel at a Science|Business conference February 22-23. This essay, on behalf of the “Stockholm Trio” of Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University, is the first of a series of opinions Science|Business will publish on the topic.

Read the Science|Business declaration on international R&D cooperation here.

As it reviews its international R&D strategy this year, the EU is torn between two conflicting approaches to scientific collaboration: on one hand wanting open science and open competition, but on the other hand also wanting security – of vaccine supply, technical know-how, jobs and health. How do we find the right balance between these two priorities?

We would argue that these issues go hand in hand. In order to be “secure and independent” Europe needs to be the best in the world. To be the best in the world we need to cooperate with the best, be open to the world and to attract the best researchers. The cooperation has to respect and protect our core academic and societal values. Here, we take up seven points which should contribute to the aim of Europe being a global player with the best researchers contributing to the UN’s Strategic Development Goals.

  1. Global cooperation is essential.

International cooperation is needed for Europe, and especially for countries like Sweden, which only accounts for around 1% of all research in the world. As research, education and innovation today are genuinely global, future competitiveness and attractiveness require purposeful international connectivity and interaction with the best actors and environments both inside and outside Europe. The cooperation has to build on long term engagement and capacity building. The focus of the cooperation should be on strategic priorities of the EU: the green transition, including the international reach of the European Green Deal, cooperation in global health and the digital transition and innovation but also in open dialogue with third countries. We should partly move away from bilateral deals towards more multilateral cooperation, and focus on regions such as Africa, South East Asia and Latin America in addition to industrialised countries. A multilateral approach is also necessary and logical if the focus is on strategic areas rather than on separate countries. Member states must work in co-creation with the Commission to develop tools and to implement cooperation with third countries.

  1. Horizon Europe: open in principle, and in practice

The Horizon Europe programme has strong potential to contribute to more systematic global cooperation. The programme’s openness should be ensured and implemented with appropriate instruments. It is important for the Commission to start urgently the process of non-EU countries formally joining Horizon, as associate members. However, we also need to better facilitate cooperation outside Europe with countries that are not associated. Today there are hardly any incentives for European Horizon participants to include partners from outside Europe. It is important to discuss legal obstacles for third countries to cooperate with Europe. This should lead to an agreement of funding from both sides, covering reciprocity and intellectual property. Third countries also find it difficult to track EU laws when participating in Horizon, especially when they contribute to the funding. In this context it is important to find more efficient ways to cooperate with developing countries, perhaps involving national agencies. The World Health Organisation is another important collaborator.  

  1. Science diplomacy - a positive trademark for Europe

Science diplomacy is an important tool of cooperation, but it should start with the researchers rather than the politicians. It is important to distinguish between science diplomacy and science activism. Science diplomacy is about making science an input to policy making, not prescribing policy to others; otherwise, there is a risk it could be interpreted as a vehicle for “European superiority”. Science diplomacy should be used as a positive trademark for Europe. It can also be used in different thematic areas, such as climate. It can start with dialogue between researchers. Next step would be to invite other actors in the field. In a third step, researchers can support political dialogues. Finally, it is important to involve universities both at national and EU level in these dialogues, as they are the main performers of research in most countries.

  1. Coordinate national and European efforts.

There is a need to facilitate better coordination between national and European programmes. In Sweden we use the word ‘samordning’, which is more positive than the English term, ‘coordination’: it translates as an ‘incentivised coordination among equals’, or what business negotiators might call a ‘win-win’. In short, coordination should benefit all. We need a new forum at EU level within the new European Research Area, with member states including all stakeholders and in particular universities. A revitalised Strategic Forum for International S&T Cooperation, or SFIC  – a standing EU Council Group for global R&D strategy last renewed in 2016 – should interact with stakeholders in a more systematic way and in particular with universities and their established networks.

  1. Develop the concept of ‘knowledge diplomacy’.

EU education policies can also contribute to international R&D collaboration. It is important that, in global cooperation, there be more synergies among the European Research Area, the planned European Education Area, and the full potential of the European University Initiative. The Erasmus+ programme could be more open (building on Erasmus Mundus), developing the concept of “knowledge diplomacy”, with students and researchers functioning as our best possible science ambassadors. We need to attract the best researchers to Europe and use and develop instruments like ‘Destination Europe’.

  1. Support and utilise partnerships.

Partnership between European universities and universities outside Europe is an important part of long-term global cooperation and should be facilitated at both national and European level. The Stockholm Trio (Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet and KTH Royal Institute of Technology) have such an agreement with Tokyo University, and this strategic partnership will strengthen cooperation under the three headlines of research, mobility of students and staff, and development of faculty.

  1. The role of foresight

There are many issues to be discussed and assessed before we have a strategy on global cooperation, and for this more foresight studies are necessary. It is important that these studies are followed up. The potential role of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre should be explored. 

Dan Andrée is senior advisor for EU R&I policy for the Stockholm Trio Alliance of Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University.

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