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New measures to boost research security in the EU

On 24 January 2024, the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager launched a new Proposal for a Council Recommendation on enhancing research security. The policy document comes in the form of a Proposal for a Council Recommendation – this format being deemed as the most suitable to ensure that all member states are actively involved and committed at political level to the wider agenda of strengthening knowledge security across the union.  

The initiative strives to provide more clarity and guidance, by facilitating more consistency across the current patchwork of measures in place at different levels in the R&I sector.  

The overall EU approach follows the principle “as open as possible, as closed as necessary“ in international research cooperation, and puts higher education institutions at the forefront of decision-making. The document contains multiple references to academic freedom and institutional autonomy, providing a checklist of actions and safeguards that could be considered by research institutions, funding organisations and member states, without prescribing any course of action. This signals that universities and researchers are expected to take the lead in scrutinising potentially problematic research, the role of member states and funding organisations being to provide an adequate support framework and some concrete tools. 

Amongst the panoply of proposed measures: 

  • Member states are invited, inter alia, to create a support structure, for example, a Research Security Advisory Hub, to help researchers and innovators deal with risks related to international cooperation in R&I . They are also asked to reflect on the application of the measures contained in this proposal to international cooperation activities in higher education, including to student and staff mobility activities.   
  • Funding organisations are, for example, advised to make research security an “integral part of the application process” for their funding lines and to think about whether there might be “hidden” agendas for foreign research partners. They are also asked to develop “adequate expertise and skills” to track the funded projects. 
  • Last but not least, research and higher education institutions are advised to put an “exit strategy” in place, in case research partnerships fail or are not reciprocal, and to assess whether students and academics studying in Europe on government-sponsored scholarships have any “undesirable obligations” imposed on them. 

The proposal also includes plans to establish a European Centre of Expertise on Research Security, funded from the Horizon Europe budget, to create a focal point to pool EU-wide knowledge about research security. The Commission also plans for a biennial EU stakeholder forum on research security. 

This development follows a prior debate on knowledge security and responsible internationalisation, hosted in the EU’s Competitiveness Council by the Swedish Presidency in May 2023 (ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, May 2023). Although the Commission’s current proposal embodies a country-agnostic approach, it is clear that many of the suggestions were triggered by perceived risks and incidents in the research cooperation with China, with increasingly more member states and non-European countries launching China-specific policies (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2024). 

The policy document is part of a wider package of five measures meant to strengthen the EU’s economic security, in line with the European Economic Security Strategy of June 2023. The other four measures include:  

  • further strengthening the protection of EU security and public order, through improved screening of foreign investment into the EU; 
  • stimulating discussions and action for more European coordination in the area of export controls, in full respect of the subsidiarity principle; 
  • consulting Member States and stakeholders to identify potential risks stemming from outbound investments in a narrow set of technologies; and 
  • promoting further discussions on how to better support research and development touching on technologies with dual-use potential. 

ACA members will hold a series of peer learning activities on the topic of responsible internationalisation in higher education (and research) throughout 2024, through a dedicated Thematic Peer Group (TPG).