Europe in the world: knowledge supply chains must be kept open

This week (the 26 and 27 September) Nordic university presidents met in Brussels to discuss the development of EU´s agenda for research, innovation, and education. A rare opportunity to engage with political decision makers and to find common ground.  

Today I was invited to give a talk on the topic “Europe in the world” in a session moderated by Anne Borg (Rector NTNU – The Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and with an introductory speech by Maria Cristina Russo, Director of the European Commission DG Research & Innovation, Global Approach & International Partnerships. The discussion naturally revolved around the balance that must be struck between the efforts to strengthen collaboration within Europe and the need to keep open the academic channels with the rest of the world. The European Universities initiative and the plans to bolster the European Research Area are cases in point: they provide welcome opportunities for collaboration within EU but at the same time they risk detracting from collaborations with the world beyond. A fine balance indeed.

Global collaborations are the way forward in a changing world

Global collaborations are essential. Every day I see how Karolinska Institutet prospers and thrives through our extensive collaboration with countries all over the world. The same is true for other universities, of course. European universities cater to their respective nations, to the EU, but also to the world at large. Even in turbulent times we need to cling to the idea that universities are global in their nature and global in their commitment and responsibility. Knowledge must be seen as a global public good.  

And let us look at the demographic development: a glimpse at the recent Eurostat prognosis tells us that the EU´s share of the world´s population will contract to 4% at the turn of the century. The EU will be heavily dependent on the influx of knowledge and innovativeness from the remaining 96%. Universities will play a seminal role in this challenge, serving as portals of knowledge influx from the world at large.   

Two questions need to be asked

Two issues were very much in evidence in today´s discussion. What is excellence in research, and how should we deal with “foreign interference”?

As to the former issue it is essential to point out that a richness of perspectives is a sine qua non for “excellence”. Thus we – as universities – cannot restrict our collaboration to EU or to “like minded countries” beyond. We sorely also need the perspectives from countries that have preconditions and constraints that differ from our own, such as from countries in the global south. I have seen first-hand how important it is to seek out and identify solutions that were developed in the global south but that also inform and enrich research and health care in the global north. Preventive measures to curb the development of diabetes 2 are just one example of many. Reciprocal innovation and symmetric partnerships must be high also on EU´s agenda. Indeed “openness to the world” is now a catchphrase in the EU lingo and we as universities would do well to help translate it into action.

Then over to issue of “foreign interference”. As to this point I suggest we rather talk about “political interference” as interference may also come from within – from national governments, from “like minded countries”, and even from the EU itself. The paradox is that well-intentioned policies to avoid interference from authoritarian regimes might morph into an unfortunate interference with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Key here is responsible internationalisation: that the competence needed for safe and ethical navigation in a turbulent world is developed in the universities and research communities themselves. Relevant competence and an ethical compass must be in the hands of the individual researchers. I have written about this previously on the blog and there is also information on our website.

Open discussions and common ground

The tensions that come to the fore when EU seeks to strengthen internal collaboration and secure “strategic autonomy” in a turbulent world are discussed in more detail in a recent article that I coauthored with colleagues at KI.

These tensions must be discussed in the open, and we must try to find common ground through a constructive exchange of views with political decision makers at the national and EU levels. The Nordic University Days were one step in this direction.

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers of these events in Brussels!


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