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Academics must shape EU collaboration policy or be shaped

Research security is moving up Brussels’s agenda. Universities must lead the debate, says Jan Palmowski

On 24 January, the European Commission published sweeping proposals on economic security. They address research head-on, with deep implications for international collaboration, academic freedom, and the purpose of EU-funded research and innovation. 

Universities must engage with these proposals with determination and confidence. Among other things, this is a debate about the heart and soul of the EU’s next framework programme for R&D (FP10).

In its Proposal for a Council Recommendation on enhancing research security, the Commission suggests political guidance to member states on how to work with universities and research groups to prevent foreign actors abusing their work for military or other unintended purposes. 

It is a carefully worded document that foregrounds academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Noting the grey areas in international collaboration, it avoids advocating a legally binding instrument in favour of steering member states towards coordinated policies on research security. 

Commendably, that includes strengthening the sector’s self-governance. The Commission also emphasises the need for international collaboration, and for measures to be proportionate. The proposal’s advocacy of building a common approach within the European Research Area is also spot on. Divergence would create imbalances across countries, and jeopardise research collaboration within and beyond Europe. 

The ERA must not become a fortress: safeguarding research security must be compatible with, and reinforce, the EU’s other international strategies, such as on global health and African R&I collaboration. Similarly, it is essential to ensure alignment with non-EU European collaborators, including the UK and Switzerland. 

Crucially, the proposal for research security is just one of five Commission initiatives on economic security. All have deep implications for universities. 

Australia’s lesson

The white paper on outbound investment, for example, proposes that member states might “optionally” monitor “critical” activities such as R&D collaboration and foreign actors’ recruitment of specialised staff from Europe. But the lesson of Australia’s approach in this area is that wholesale monitoring by governments can be ineffective and harm critical international collaboration. The academic community must make sure that it, rather than trade ministries or intelligence services, takes the lead on research security. 

The discussion must be grounded in recognition that international collaboration is essential to the EU’s knowledge base and capacity to address global problems. It must consider the risks of non-collaboration. And it must recognise that research security requires close collaboration with scientists, who are best placed to strengthen a culture of responsibility around their work. Security can only be effective if it is integrated with, and supportive of, the entire research system. 

The other white paper with significant consequences for universities covers R&D involving technologies with dual-use potential. The EU has kept civilian and military research apart; the paper argues that bringing them together could boost innovation by enlarging the pool of potential users and meeting political demands for more defence R&D. 

It proposes three options. First, maximising existing opportunities to bring together civilian and military research and innovation. Second, retiring Horizon Europe’s exclusive focus on civilian research and setting aside a significant part of FP10, which begins in 2028, for dual-use work. Third, and alternatively, developing a separate military programme alongside FP10.

Accepting dual-use research could reinforce the idea of research and innovation as a political tool for the EU’s strategic priorities. It might compromise a unique selling point for the EU globally, namely its civilian research programme’s focus on humanity’s common challenges. And what security controls would third countries have to agree to, to avoid being excluded from sizeable parts of FP10?

By contrast, creating a defence fund alongside FP10 would create difficult financial trade-offs. The recent revisions to the Multiannual Financial Framework, which saw Horizon Europe cut by €2 billion while the European Defence Fund grew by €1.5bn, would be a portent of dilemmas to come. 

Universities need to challenge limited views of security. To be sure, we need to guard against the misuse of intellectual property. But we also need to invest in research to strengthen societal resilience at home and abroad.  

Now is the time to set out clearly how we can maximise the EU’s capacity to serve its citizens and support its neighbours—through technology, critical infrastructures and deep research.  

Jan Palmowski is professor of modern history at the University of Warwick, UK, and adjunct professor of higher education studies at the University of Oslo

This article also appeared in Research Europe