Europe’s strategic autonomy agenda demands wider research horizons

Since the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of how Europe can achieve strategic autonomy has come to the fore. How can the continent respond quickly to crises and external challenges? How can it strengthen democracy and prevent disinformation (including undermining trust in science)? And how can Europe develop more critical technological capacity from within?

These were among the more substantive issues addressed at this year’s European Research and Innovation Days, held over two days at the end of September. First held in 2019, the event has turned into an annual showcase in which the European Commission articulates its ongoing priorities in research and innovation (R&I).

This year, the commission launched the strategic planning process for the second part of Horizon Europe (2025-7). To this end, it announced a consultation that will invite reflections on Horizon 2020, the future of Horizon Europe, and any successor programme. Yet Horizon Europe is currently less than two years old, and within that period alone life in Europe has transformed twice over, through the pandemic and the Ukrainian invasion. Articulating R&I priorities from 2025 onwards is not without its challenges.

But in addressing the question of strategic autonomy, the event did point to one key consideration for any future European R&I programme.

The sector has long supported the argument that R&I should be properly funded because of its strategic importance to the European Union. As well as the health and geopolitical challenges of the past few years, the argument’s momentum has been boosted by commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s focus on digital and green transformation. The EU’s commitment that future growth should come from innovation has also contributed to putting the issue of strategic autonomy – often also referred to as Europe’s “resilience” – fully on the table.

A concrete area of focus next year will be the global dimension of European research and innovation. Thus, the European Research Area envisages boosting international cooperation “based on reciprocity”. The Commission will seek to implement its “global approach”, at the heart of which lies the ambition to ensure science plays a positive part in the EU’s global relations. A first outcome was the draft joint innovation agenda with the African Union, agreed by the EU-AU Summit in February as an area of common focus for both blocs.

Key questions that will occupy Brussels in implementing its global approach include how openness of scientific relations can be fostered and what can be done to protect European R&I from undue foreign interference. Indeed, what common values, ethics and assumptions need to be in place for scientific relations to be “fair”?

For Horizon Europe and its successor programmes, we are likely to see much greater focus on aligning with politically and strategically “like-minded” R&I partners. This will trigger rich discussions about who may be included or excluded from particular calls in areas deemed to be of strategic importance.

This changes the nature of the – by now long-running – discussion around Swiss and UK association to Horizon Europe. For all sides, any current disagreements pale into insignificance in light of the close and trusted relationships that exist between EU, Swiss and UK R&I partners. The issue of strategic autonomy presents an inalienable logic towards mutual alignment in R&I. The sooner all parties recognise this, the better.

The Commission will also seek to build on its drive to expand the formal association of countries such as Canada and New Zealand to the second pillar of Horizon Europe (global challenges and industrial competitiveness). This is likely to have broader implications for the academic substance of Horizon, which will need to address challenges that are not only European, but global.

Strategic autonomy also risks a bias towards science and technology. For instance, the European Chips Initiative, designed to increase European production of semiconductor chips from 10 to 20 per cent of the global market by 2030, will siphon off €1.65 billion (£1.44 billion) from the Horizon Europe budget. With such bias for particular changes in technological capacity, there could be pressure for the disciplinary focus of the next framework programme to be narrowed.

In fact, the emphasis on strategic autonomy risks an over-concentration on applied research and innovation. Nobody knows what big strategic challenges will surprise us in the future, so strategic autonomy requires us to redouble our efforts to articulate the importance of fundamental research. And if we are to address the EU’s expressed concerns about the threat posed by disinformation to democracy (and to science), more research on democracy and how to overcome threats is not going to be enough. We have to demonstrate to policymakers the need for an inclusive approach towards tackling societal challenges, involving all subject knowledge.

The R&I Days suggested that R&I policy is moving ever more closely towards the EU’s political centre stage. This does not come without risks for the Horizon Europe’s openness and strategic direction. But it offers sufficient opportunities for universities to contribute to a truly ambitious, global and comprehensive strategic plan for the coming years.

Published Oct. 19, 2022 9:58 AM - Last modified Oct. 27, 2022 10:42 AM