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A vision for 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 are for the whole of the global knowledge system and could be translated into a common method of how such a system might work.

The commission underlines that openness is the default option for global cooperation, and this is important. In the current discussions on strategic autonomy in the European Union, there is a strong current that would give priority to self-sufficiency.

Much of the background to the commission’s wish to attain European strategic autonomy comes from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic when it became clear that Europe was dependent on external suppliers for personal protective equipment, masks and virus testing materials. A desire emerged for Europe to provide more for itself and be less dependent on others. In this context, underlining the importance of openness, as the strategy does, is positive.

As a structure to underpin openness, the European Commission’s vision proposes a network of different agreements between Europe and regions in the rest of the world.

The concept would include association agreements for the Horizon Europe research programme with individual countries or roadmaps for regions like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or whole continents like Africa. Presented as a multilateral, rules-based model, it is in line with the overall principles of EU foreign policy. This might take the form of a hub-and-spokes model for global research cooperation with Europe in the centre.

Addressing grand challenges

What the European Commission proposes would strengthen cooperation to address grand 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 recognises the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as its common purpose. These goals provide a holistic framework built on a global consensus, and they require a global response.

Furthering cooperation in ocean research or in earth observation generally is emphasised in the European Commission’s vision, but the document points mostly to technical solutions and observations of the physical world. However, to achieve sustainability, mapping and resolving social and economic challenges will be equally important.

A developed, concrete global vision for cooperation in research and innovation is welcome. Europe has the ability to take the lead precisely because it has a global outlook that is built on cooperation.

A unique global role

Europe also has unique experience with international cooperation through its programmes for research and education, which bring researchers, universities and teachers together across the European continent. Europe engages purposefully with neighbours in Africa and West Asia and in regular dialogue with ASEAN and Latin American countries.

The United States, by contrast, looks currently at further developing its own capacity, evidenced recently by the two-hour Senate hearing of Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in which international cooperation featured in one short sentence.

China is positive in its rhetoric towards cooperation but does not have the trust of the world to take on the role as global leader.

There is an opportunity for Europe, one that also brings great responsibility. In a challenging geopolitical setting, the EU’s role should be to sustain true global multilateralism, promoting values and norms that are agreed 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 agreed by the global community (and they are wider than the European Green Deal). The role of the EU should be to sustain and promote these common values and facilitate their further development, not export ideas articulated by the member states.

Safe spaces for cooperation

Giving priority to research and innovation in foreign policy entails 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 international strategies, capacity and goals and these might 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 formal government contacts are difficult, and universities provide safe spaces for cooperation.

Despite the risks, a vision for a multilateral and values-based global research community is highly welcome. The European Commission has presented a wide-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 take such a vision forward in a truly global manner, bringing together actors from all parts of the world.

Universities are the ones that will, in the end, make the vision into a reality through their manifold partnerships and connections and an awareness of their global responsibilities for advancing human knowledge and meeting the challenges of a shared world.