At the heart of the twin transitions

<< Back to the Annual Report 2021-2022

Over the past year, The Guild increased its influencing activities in relation to two key strategic aims of the von der Leyen Commission: the twin digital and green transitions. The Guild engaged with policymakers on the importance of EU strategic goals for universities in research, innovation and teaching, focusing initially on its signature legislative initiatives: the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act and the Digital Services Act.

Recommendations for regulating data technologies and flows

The Heads of AI/Digital Research group was formed just as the European Commission published several proposals for regulating digital technologies, services and markets. In reaction to these regulations, predominantly addressed to the industry and business sectors, The Guild made a strong push for better considering their (unintended) impacts on research and universities.

Artificial Intelligence Act

The European Union is developing the first transnational regulatory framework for AI, with the ambition to thereby define a global standard. The AI Act aims to define harmonized rules to address the risks of specific uses of AI systems, banning, for instance, those that create a high risk to the fundamental rights of European citizens. In May 2021, The Guild’s Heads of AI/Digital research working group discussed the European Commission’s proposal with Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology’s (DG CNECT) Kilian Gross. Invited by the Commission to contribute our views further, our working group provided feedback to the European Commission’s proposal in December 2021. It recommended prohibiting practices that posed a serious threat to fundamental rights and EU values, instead of regulating or banning the AI systems that may be used for these practices. Additionally, The Guild expressed concerns about the additional burdens that the Act may create on research activities on (or using) AI technologies.

Invited by the Commission to contribute further our views, our working group provided feedback to the European Commission’s proposal in December 2021. It recommend prohibiting practices that put a serious threat to fundamental rights and EU values, instead of regulating or banning the AI systems that may be used for these practices. Additionally, The Guild expressed concerns about the additional burdens that the Act may create on research activities on (or using) AI technologies. Finally, we proposed rethinking the role of universities as regulatory sandboxes supporting the development of AI systems compliant with the future AI Act. Accordingly, academic experts could also advise on regular amendments to the definition of high-risk AI systems to ensure that it stays relevant, given the fast-paced technological progress in the field.

Finally, we proposed rethinking the role of universities as regulatory sandboxes supporting the development of AI systems compliant with the future AI Act. Accordingly, academic experts could also advise on regular amendments to the definition of high-risk AI systems to ensure that it stays relevant, given the fast-paced technological progress in the field. We expressed our joint support to the amendment proposed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy to introduce a new article reading that the AI Act shall not affect R&D activities regarding AI systems.

Data Act

The Heads of AI/Digital Research also engaged in the policy discussions on the European Commission’s proposal for a Data Act aimed at ensuring fair access to, and the reuse of, data held by for-profit private organizations. This Act aims at a fair data digital environment by facilitating the access to, and use of, data generated and owned by private entities. In December 2021, the Heads of AI/Digital Research discussed with DG CNECT’s Christian D’Cunha the ambition of the European Commission.

In February 2022, Julien Chicot and Professor Morten Dæhlen (University of Oslo) had a follow-up meeting with DG CNECT’s Yvo Volman in Luxembourg. Based on these bilateral discussions, The Guild published its views on the European Commission’s proposal. We contend that the provisions on fair access to data held by private companies should apply to business-to-academia data sharing too. We also call for the recognition that research is instrumental in finding solutions to pressing challenges. It is in the public interest to allow researchers to request direct access to data under fair conditions.

Digital Services Act

Finally, in April 2022, The Guild joined a coalition of research organisations to voice deep concern about the Digital Services Act then being discussed by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council. The European Commission’s proposal was devised for regulating commercial platforms and their content. Because of its focus on the for-profit sector, it overlooked the risk that the digital platforms and infrastructures used by universities may fall within the scope of the Act. If applied to the higher education and research sector, the Act may hinder the use of some crucial digital platforms and infrastructure for research and higher education and even threaten academic freedom by regulating their content.

The Guild and its partners jointly acknowledged the efforts of the European Parliament to propose procedures to exempt not-for-profit repositories from the obligations imposed on online platforms. However, they called instead for a derogation for not-for-profit educational and research digital infrastructures to avoid the administrative costs and potential legal uncertainties that derogation procedures would induce.

Addressing climate change

© University of Glasgow (2021)

At a scientific and institutional level, our member universities increased further their support for greater environmental sustainability. Scientists like Caroline Adler (Bern), Mark Pelling (King’s College London) and Jean-François Toussaint (Paris Cité) contributed to the IPCC Sixth Climate Change report finalized in February 2022.

Individual initiatives by universities such as the Radboud Impact Day were complemented by the University of Glasgow’s close involvement in the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow (November 2021) across almost its entire subject range, and through the UK’s COP26 Universities network. To support this activity, The Guild launched a series of articles bringing together some of the initiatives of our members, to highlight the diversity and complexity of the challenges we face.