A vision of multilateralism in research and innovation
In May 2021, the European Commission published its vision for a global approach to research and innovation. Although articulated in Brussels, its ambitions concern the entire global knowledge system and could translate into a common method of functioning of such a system.
The committee stresses that openness is the default option for global cooperation, and this is important. In the current discussions on the strategic autonomy of the European Union, there is a strong current which would give priority to self-sufficiency.
Much of the background to the commission’s wish to achieve European strategic autonomy comes from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic when it became clear that Europe depended on external suppliers for personal protective equipment, masks and virus screening equipment. A desire has emerged for Europe to feed itself more and to be less dependent on others. In this context, emphasizing the importance of openness, as strategy does, is positive.
Open structure, the vision of the European Commission proposes a network of different agreements between Europe and the regions of the rest of the world.
The concept would include association agreements for the Horizon Europe research program with individual countries or roadmaps for regions like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or entire continents like ‘Africa. Presented as a rules-based multilateral model, it conforms to the general principles of EU foreign policy. This could take the form of a star model for global research cooperation with Europe at the center.
Meeting the big challenges
What the European Commission is proposing would strengthen cooperation to address major challenges such as climate and environmental sustainability, digital transformation and health protection.
However, it is crucial that any attempt to develop the format of a global research and innovation community recognizes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as its common goal. These goals provide a holistic framework built on global consensus, and they require a global response.
The deepening of cooperation in ocean research or in Earth observation in general is underlined in the vision of the European Commission, but the document mainly points to technical solutions and observations of the physical world. However, to achieve sustainability, mapping and solving social and economic challenges will be just as important.
A comprehensive and concrete vision of cooperation in research and innovation is welcome. Europe has the capacity to take the lead precisely because it has a global vision based on cooperation.
A unique global role
Europe also has a unique experience in international cooperation through its research and education programs, which bring together researchers, universities and teachers across the European continent. Europe deliberately engages with its neighbors in Africa and West Asia and maintains a regular dialogue with the countries of ASEAN and Latin America.
The United States, on the other hand, is currently considering further development of its own capabilities, as recently evidenced by Eric Lander’s two-hour senatorial hearing, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, in which international cooperation featured in one short sentence.
China is positive in its rhetoric towards cooperation but lacks the confidence of the world to assume the role of world leader.
There is an opportunity for Europe, an opportunity which also brings great responsibility. In a difficult geopolitical context, the role of the EU should be to support genuine global multilateralism, promoting values and standards accepted by the international community as a whole. For example, academic freedom as a value is part of the globally defined right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The Sustainable Development Goals are endorsed by the global community (and they are broader than the European Green Deal). The role of the EU should be to support and promote these common values and facilitate their future development, not to export the ideas formulated by the Member States.
Safe spaces for cooperation
Giving priority to research and innovation in foreign policy carries a risk, a temptation to see universities as a tool of foreign policy agendas, ignoring the fact that universities are international actors in their own right. Most universities have their own strategies, capacities and international goals and these may not coincide with what governments see as priorities.
Detachment from high-level foreign policy has always been one of the strengths of science diplomacy: academics can work and build bridges in a context where official contacts with government are difficult, and universities offer spaces safe for cooperation.
Despite the risks, a vision for a global, multilateral, values-based research community is welcome. The European Commission has presented a far-reaching proposal that could have a tangible impact on the global knowledge community.
It is now up to national governments, stakeholders and supranational bodies to advance such a vision in a truly global way, bringing together actors from all regions of the world.
Universities are the ones that will ultimately make this vision a reality through their multiple partnerships and connections and an awareness of their global responsibilities to advance human knowledge and meet the challenges of a shared world.
Michael Murphy is president of the European Association of Universities. Thomas Jørgensen is Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association (EUA). the The EUA has published a response to the communication from the European Commission of June 15, 2021.