Europe is having reservations about science and technology collaboration with China in terms of knowledge exchange and people – be it researchers or students. Is this justified?
A combination of factors is causing European universities, researchers, firms and governments to rethink their approach to science and technology collaboration with China. First, states that only 30 years ago played a marginal role in the global research and innovation (R&I) landscape have now grown into important hubs, both in terms of supply and demand. Second, while democratically governed countries have long dominated research and innovation resources, autocratic states have now become major investors in R&I. Third, knowledge, technology and innovation — key drivers of competitiveness and growth — are increasingly linked to states’ national security, influence and power. Fourth, R&I has become increasingly globalized through cross-border and international collaborations in academia and industry.
This is reflected in the growing number of international academic co-publications, but also in the increasing share of business R&D activities outside of companies’ home markets. China is the most important manifestation of these trends, due to its sheer size, its explicit aims to become a world leader in certain critical technologies and industries, the close coupling of civilian and military uses of technology, and the increasing politicization, government control, even instrumentalization of economic and academic environments, including international science and technology cooperation.
How are European actors responding?
Within a short time, European actors have gone from a very positive view of science and technology cooperation with China towards a much more cautious stance to engagement with China, in general, and particularly regarding science and technology. Governments, higher education institutions and research funders have published guidelines, checklists or launched other initiatives, some of which are China-specific and some country-agnostic, on how to approach international cooperation that is deemed to incur risks for national security, competitiveness and other strategic interests.
At the same time, the research we and others are doing does not yet show a significant decline in European co-publications with China. This pattern differs from the US where co-publications with China as a whole, and particularly within specific fields such as material sciences, energy and computer science, are declining (both in absolute terms and as a share of total publications). Moreover, this trend shift precedes the outbreak of Covid-19, indicating a decline or decoupling in research collaboration is explained by other factors than the pandemic.
Similarly, we do not yet see a significant reduction in European firms’ research and development activities in China, although it appears that the pattern may be shifting in terms of which firms maintain or even increase their R&D activities in China and the nature or focus of those activities.
How can we manage international collaboration with complex countries like China – how can we be better at balancing risks with the value of open knowledge exchange?
Our work on international science and technology cooperation shows essentially the following. First, there are cases of collaboration with China that, for various reasons, undermine national security and other strategic national and European interests. At the same time, a large number of research collaborations are unproblematic and contribute significantly to enhancing our knowledge of Chinese society, economy and science and technology. These collaborations are particularly important given that Covid, but also Chinese policies, have made it increasingly difficult to engage with actors and follow developments in China.
Second, many responses on how to manage risks in research and innovation cooperation with China have focused on academic research. They do not address the needs and risks regarding companies and industries when it comes to advice, support and guidance. Third, in line with its explicit ambitions, China is becoming, and in some fields already has become, a global research leader in terms of both the quantity and quality of its research. We see a tendency and potential risk in reducing or ending engagement with China in areas where it might be particularly relevant and beneficial to continue to interact and cooperate in a strategic and responsible fashion.