The biggest challenges confronting humanity necessitate countries work together. At the Marseille Conference on 8 March, Europe explored the path forward for international collaboration in research and innovation.
Now more than ever we bear witness to the achievements made possible in research, when countries collaborate closely and gain access to the right tools and expertise to get the job done. Years of international research collaborations in academia and industry underpinned the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the development of vaccines.
At the same time, geopolitical developments in the past decade have shown that collaboration sometimes needs to be modulated. The illegal Russian military aggression against Ukraine is a clear example of such developments. The EU has strongly condemned the invasion and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that sanctions would include limiting Russia’s access to crucial technology, such as semiconductors or cutting-edge software. The Commission has suspended cooperation with Russia on research and innovation and Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel, issued a statement.
However, with those countries that respect fundamental values, the EU is committed to keep an open approach. This is not just beneficial, it is necessary.
Fostering mutually beneficial international cooperation in research and innovation
‘It is not possible for one country alone to tackle challenges such as climate change or pandemics, which know no borders,’ said Dr Frédérique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. ‘Pooling efforts, knowledge and capacities is essential to tackle these global challenges.’
The minister addressed the Ministerial Conference on a Global Approach to Research, Innovation and Higher Education. Held in Marseille on 8 March, the event highlighted the global nature of science and how the EU continues to stretch out a hand of cooperation to countries around the world, but also strives to ensure that collaborations are mutually beneficial and fair. It comes a year after the European Commission’s own strategy paper on the “Global Approach to Research and Innovation”.
The conference was jointly organised by the French Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and the French Ministry for European and Foreign affairs, the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) and the European Commission.
‘The message of this conference to third countries is that the European Union is open, and will remain open, to international collaboration in the fields of higher education, research and innovation,’ noted Minister Vidal.
The French Presidency is set to draw up the ‘Marseille declaration’ on international cooperation in research and innovation. According to Minister Vidal, the Marseille declaration will promote reciprocity and a level playing field, but also respect for basic values to ensure that researchers and innovators experience the right working conditions.
‘Humanity has lots of crises right now. Not just the pandemic, but climate change for example,’ said Dr Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, young researcher and chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA). ‘And we haven’t decided how to tackle these challenges yet.’ He notes that despite the existential threat from Covid-19, there were no pre-existing coordinated efforts from governments ready to deal with what was an acknowledged risk – a devastating pandemic.
He described the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines as the fruit of 20 years of basic science and collaborations between industry, policymakers and researchers. ‘Whatever we enjoy today is because of investment in research and work done over the past decades,’ he said.
Rebalancing global cooperation
The conference in Marseille was a step towards allowing European countries to adapt to significant changes in the international situation since 2012, when the previous strategy on international research and innovation collaboration was drawn up.
‘Global challenges require a global response, and in particular, consultations between Europeans,’ said Minister Vidal, ahead of the conference. ‘On the other hand, the scientific and technological environment has become increasingly competitive, with some countries exploiting science or limiting the ability of researchers, students or innovators wishing to collaborate with them.’
Some countries have closed access to certain research infrastructures, for example. This is why it is necessary to rebalance international cooperation, Minister Vidal explained, so that it remains reciprocal and mutually beneficial, but also respects the rights of researchers, academics and students.
Having the right structures in place will ensure fair and productive collaborations. Dr Shawrav stresses that science diplomacy is one way to encourage beneficial cooperation between nations, and to allow scientists to work together on grand challenges.
One example is CERN, the European research organisation that runs high energy physics experiments in particle colliders beneath the Swiss-French border. It is run by 23 Member States and involves many non-European countries too. CERN scientists won the Nobel prize in physics in 2019.
Horizon 2020 projects often mandate that researchers from three countries take part. ‘It is really eye-opening for early career researchers, who join and go to different workshops,’ said Dr Shawrav. ‘And understand, okay, the world is much bigger than I thought before, and the topics and challenges are bigger, but then they see that the opportunities are much greater because you can collaborate with others, even globally.’
For the Marseille conference, the construction of a common approach at the European level is something that the French Presidency of the Council of the EU is keen to promote, said Minister Vidal. It will allow for the future implementation of work begun by a communication sent out on 18 May 2021, on the global approach to research and innovation, bolstered by the conclusions adopted by the Council of the European Union on 28 September 2021.
Promoting principles and values
The update is seen as necessary at a time when geopolitical tensions are rising and human rights and fundamental values are being challenged, with concerns about threats to academic freedom, about gender inequality, around intellectual property rights issues and about an uneven playing field.
At the same time, the greatest global challenges demand that European countries and others pull together and leverage their scientific know-how to develop solutions.
‘The Union distinguishes itself by the general openness to the world of the Horizon Europe programme and the opportunities offered by the Erasmus+ and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programmes,’ stated Minister Vidal. Erasmus+ is the EU’s programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe.
‘We see the Marseille conference as an important step toward the launch of a multilateral dialogue on the basis of key principles and values discussed between Member States during the conference, such as freedom of academic research, ethics and integrity, and research excellence, third countries should be encouraged to respect these conditions,’ Minister Vidal added. ‘Thereafter, it will be necessary to ensure the continuity of this dialogue.’
She said that the negotiation of roadmaps between the Union and its partners is also an interesting instrument, as shown by the dialogue currently underway with the People’s Republic of China.
The triple I of mobility: international, interdisciplinary and intersectoral
Dr Mostafa Moonir Shawrav is a young researcher and chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA). The MCAA is a non-profit volunteer association with over 20,000 researchers from 150+ countries.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funds collaborative research around the world. It allows researchers from outside the EU to do research in Member States, while funding European young scientists to join labs in Australia, the US, Canada and other partner countries. The association will run its annual conference in Lisbon on March 26 to 27, with topics such as the new European Research Area, writing grant proposals and the role of artificial intelligence in doctoral education.
Dr Shawrav himself came to Europe from Bangladesh, and worked in academia in the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria. He has since switched from academia to industry, where he manages EU projects for a large European optical solutions company. ‘I’m the perfect example of triple I mobility,’ he said, in that he moved between countries (international), between scientific disciplines (interdisciplinary) and transitioned from academia into industry and became involved in a non-profit organisation (intersectoral).