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Guardians of Knowledge: Why the EU’s New Research Security Approach Puts European Universities in a Bind

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The European Commission’s latest efforts on enhancing research security address the risks associated with academic engagement with Chinese universities and research institutions. The initiatives aim to coordinate EU member states and bring academia on board in considering Europe’s economic security as well as defense. However, the “security turn” in EU research policy has created a host of new dilemmas for the continent’s universities.

In January, the European Commission released a proposal for Council recommendations on enhancing research security with the purpose of bringing the research sector closer in line with the EU’s economic security strategy. Calling for the Council to ensure the full commitment of all 27 member states, Iliana Ivanova, the Director General of DG Research and Innovation (DG RTD), stated:

”(O)penness and collaboration are part of the DNA of great science, but they can also make it vulnerable to malign influence and the undesirable transfer of critical technologies. This can undermine our security. We are committed to boosting security of research without compromising academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Our vision is an open AND secure research environment in Europe.” 

The new document belongs to the package on EU economic security together with the EC’s list of critical technology areas and a white paper on enhancing European R&D dual use of home-grown technologies. It is also related to the crucial discussions on how to open EU research budgets, which are now strictly civilian, for the support of defense and dual use research. Debates are also ongoing on how to redefine and advance principles of EU science diplomacy. As such, the new guidelines belong to an umbrella of initiatives which aim to increase economic security, protect EU member states against risks and promote the competitiveness of its industries and the research and academia sector. 

Research security, as an approach protecting research ecosystems and legitimate national security and economic interests, is country-agnostic. However, while not explicitly stated, China is the primary focus of the new EU recommendations, in line with the EU’s de-risking efforts. Although the immediate effect of the new initiative may be limited, European universities can expect structural changes to their conduct of international affairs, which will go beyond China. However, the process is not devoid of intrinsic dilemmas. 

How Did the “Security Turn” in EU Research Policy Come About?

Ten years ago, the EU (as well as its member states and many other states across the globe) was advocating for greater research cooperation with all countries, including China. Global academic engagement was an indirect way of increasing the EU’s diplomatic clout. The then-Commissioner for Research and Innovation (R&I), Carlos Moedas, coined the “triple O” approach of “open science, open innovation, and open to the world” in 2015. 

However, the rise of Xi Jinping and his authoritarian, inward-looking governance model led to gradual shift in the EU-China relationship, including in R&I. The final acknowledgement of this development came from von der Leyen Commission in the Strategic Outlook on China in 2019. The EU DG RTD, then led by Commissioner Maria Gabriel, coined a new strategy – “Global Approach” – which recalibrated the openness in R&I to be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary.”

Within the previous decade, China has become a key player in global science and innovation. In 2018, China was declared the world’s leading producer of academic articles (a proxy indicator for research quantity), pushing out the US as the source of the most-cited publications in 2022 (a proxy indicator for research quality). In 2023, China reported the world’s second biggest R&D expenditures, reaching 83 percent of those expended by the US. 

At the same time, the current Chinese leadership is tightening organizational control over universities, reducing their autonomy, dictating top-down research topics that it deems crucial for China’s national security, and excluding those considered harmful to the CCP’s official narrative. Aiming for technological sovereignty, the CCP also seeks global influence, standard-setting, and norm-shaping abroad, including in science and higher education. Chinese laws and regulations on espionage, military-civil integration and Party-academia integration, involve all ministries, universities and academies of science, and outline plans to increase Chinese influence in academia abroad while achieving “China-style modernization” at home. The CCP has designated research and innovation as fundamental for the country’s economic, geopolitical, and military might (especially in cutting edge fields such as chips, AI and quantum computing). In this context, Beijing’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia has only underscored the growing distance from the EU. 

Europe’s Dilemma: Unintended Consequences of Research Security Implementation

International cooperation in science is inherently fraught with risk due to high transaction costs. Such collaboration, without which contemporary ‘big science’ is unthinkable, often encounters language and cultural barriers, communication challenges, administrative costs, sunk-cost fallacies, differing financial or project cycles, and legal complexities, including issues such as data transfers, intellectual property rights, and export controls. Once adopted into national regulatory frameworks, the implementation of research security may add additional burden on universities and research organizations, making the measures costly to implement and blocking innovation, rather than unleashing it. This scenario presents the EU with three primary dilemmas.

The first one relates to autonomy. The EU is advocating for self-governance of the R&I sector in line with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. However, by imposing more regulations that blend research with political, economic, and security interests, it may unwillingly reduce, rather than enhance, academic autonomy and diminish the sector’s overall capacity for self-governance. 

The second dilemma relates to the implementation of new regulations within the university sector. Universities are adopting new risk assessment frameworks, screening mechanisms, data management plans, IT infrastructures, and ethical reviews, but they cannot alter academic norms advocating international exchange, openness, and transparency. Some academics may see research security encroaching on their decisions on where the best science is, regardless of the country of origin. In fields of natural sciences where Chinese scientists already rank among the leading, not cooperating (rather than cooperating) can also be a risk.

The third dilemma concerns coordination within Europe. The implementation of legally binding initiatives must be consistently applied across the EU. However, achieving this consistency is challenging due to the diversity of academic environments within the Union. In technological fields, which are most relevant to research security, China primarily pursues links with universities in the Netherlands, France and Germany, followed by those in the Nordic countries. Many institutions in these countries have already been putting research security measures in place. Countries in southern Europe, such as Spain and Italy, have vastly different experiences, while small countries in Central and Eastern Europe face yet another kind of situation and may fall behind. Universities in the region often lack access to resources, both financial and human, to provide adequate support services to the staff and improve risk awareness, compared to universities in Western Europe.

Charting a New Course: European Universities Adapt to Research Security “New Normal”

The EU is calling on universities across Europe to safeguard against foreign intrusion in strategic areas, preventing Chinese interference and addressing economic security. Reinforcing its position as a proactive coordinator of the 27 Member States, Brussels aims at enhancing the competitiveness of EU technology and university sectors. However, from the university perspective, this process is teeming with dilemmas related to autonomy, implementation, and coordination. Dealing with China necessitates structural changes in how universities organize collaborative research, meaning that any new regulations, however urgent, will take years to take effect. The diversity inside the Union is daunting, but the inconsistencies across the EU also present an opportunity. Efforts to target foreign interference have already spurred better knowledge-sharing and coordination inside the EU. 

The securitization trend coincides with the decreasing share of the US, the EU, and OECD countries in global research and innovation, and a rising weight of the global South, with China leading the way. European universities find themselves navigating this uncharted territory, and the EU should empower them to be able to get ahead. The EU should actively engage with its scientific communities, universities, and other stakeholders so that they perceive research security as an asset that can enhance their resilience, rather than a liability that weakens their capacity to innovate. The EU should alleviate fears that complex regulatory oversight targeting Chinese interference will have unintended consequences. Instead, it can foster a more ethical culture of international research and a strategic approach to academic engagement, which responds to the current geopolitical challenges.

Written by

Andrea Braun Střelcová


Andrea Braun Střelcová is a Predoctoral Fellow in the "China in the Global System of Science" Lise Meitner Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a Doctoral Researcher at the Higher Education Group, Tampere University in Finland.