European governments and academic institutions still struggle to grasp and address the complexity of research collaboration with China, say Rebecca Arcesati, Francesca Ghiretti and Sylvia Schwaag Serger. They will need to carefully balance the risks and rewards.
Pressure – from government, research funders and media – is growing on European research institutions to reconsider and effectively cut ties with Chinese partners in high-tech areas. Often these demands emerge before any clear policy and/or legal framework has been established. Furthermore, they can conflict with academic freedom and the pursuit of research excellence and career development, creating friction between national security concerns and scientific enterprise. Drawing hard red lines around entire fields of science can also sacrifice opportunities.
Growing geopolitical tensions with China over its opaque innovation system make adopting the right policy challenging. European countries have taken diverse steps to protect research security and integrity. Some have drawn up guidelines for academia, others are considering screening incoming Chinese students and researchers. These measures have often come in response to evidence that the Chinese government had used scientific ties to extract technology and knowledge to modernize its military or power its surveillance apparatus. There are also concerns that Europe may lose know-how critical to its economic competitiveness.
Europe’s research collaboration with China remains strong—for now
European governments and academic institutions still struggle to grasp and address the complexity of research collaboration with China. There are important scientific, economic, societal, and strategic arguments for working with this rising technology superpower. Research collaboration between both sides has grown rapidly in the past decade. Data from the research analytics tool SciVal shows that between 2013 and 2022, co-publications increased between China and its largest European cooperation partners – the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain Switzerland, Denmark, and Belgium. Among these, co-publications grew the least in France (by 133 percent) and the most in Italy (by 258 percent). Germany was China’s largest European Union partner with 86,000 joint publications, followed by France (54,000), Italy (36,000), and the Netherlands (32,000).
The data suggests that recent geopolitical tensions and technological rivalry may have affected research ties between the United States and China, but not yet between China and Europe. Between 2020 and 2022, US co-publications with China declined by nearly seven percent although they continued to increase for all EU countries (except for Bulgaria and Lithuania) as well as for Norway, Switzerland, and the UK. Nevertheless, between 2013 and 2022, the US was China’s top partner, with more than 520,000 joint publications, followed by the UK with about 150,000.
A patchwork research security landscape and the limits of self-regulation
National governments and the EU have a range of tools to protect sensitive knowledge and technology from being exploited by foreign states. Some countries, like the Netherlands and Norway, have not shied away from introducing regulatory instruments, while others have left the initiative up to the scientific community. For example, due to its strong traditional opposition to constraints on academic freedom, Germany is unlikely to impose any binding regulation on universities’ international collaborations.
But the absence of regulation puts the burden of assessing and managing risks on the scientific community, which is not always equipped or prepared to consider national security concerns. Security teams at universities struggle to discourage scientists from pursuing dual-use projects with military institutions in China, or civilian schools tied to the military. Dual-use export controls do apply to scientific knowledge production in some cases, but there are loopholes.