Asian universities may struggle to be successful in Horizon Europe

Ministry support will be vital, but a lack of political imperative could limit motivation, say Hyejin Kim, Erik Mobrand and Sylvia Schwaag Serger 

July 9, 2024
Image of two wrecking balls colliding: one painted with South Korea flag, one painted with the European Union flag
Source: Getty images (edited)

South Korea may have recently become the first Asian country to join Horizon Europe, but it is unlikely to be the last. Japan and Singapore are also having ongoing conversations with the European Commission over the possibility of deepening their relationships with the world’s largest research support scheme.

As an associate member, South Korea will be permitted to apply for certain Horizon Europe initiatives on an equal footing with full members. Seoul is hoping that this will unlock more opportunities to participate in and lead top science. And Europe’s interest is understandable considering the advanced level of science in these countries. But questions remain over whether universities and education ministries in Asia have the organisational traits to succeed in the European research framework.

One reason is that this framework has never solely been a scientific endeavour. It is embedded in a project of bringing Europeans closer together and “advancing the EU’s general and specific objectives and policies”. That impetus, combined with scientific and funding incentives, has put European government agencies for research and education on the same page as university research offices about priorities and has given them an extra impetus to make collaboration work.

Hence, European science agencies and universities, by now, have decades of experience of building deep networks of cooperation. Universities have learned how to build and staff effective research support offices, while science ministries and allied agencies have developed strong communication channels.

Of course, the Horizon framework has long invited researchers outside the European Union to participate, and some of them have done so with considerable success. Nor is South Korea the furthest flung nation to associate since the scheme was opened up to advanced scientific nations elsewhere in the world, with New Zealand joining in 2023 (although Australia has just pulled out of talks).

But unlike New Zealand and fellow potential anglophone member Canada, South Korea and other Asian nations also lie well outside Europe’s political and social scope, and their funding systems and political priorities are very different. The potential effects of this should not be underestimated.

Scientists in Asia are undoubtedly enmeshed already in the global research networks that drive scientific progress today. However, international collaboration has been underpinned in Asia by national projects and is supported by governments less as a goal in itself than as a means of gaining recognition for national institutions in global higher education indices. That is why, for better or worse, organisational forms, both in ministries and in universities, have remained oriented to the national project.

Funding structures are relevant here, too. In public European and anglophone universities, external research funding is crucial to the financing of science – and, therefore, to institutional success. But in Asia’s top public universities, the incentives and structures tend to be different. University budgets depend less on external competitive research funding. These universities design research programmes and allocate project grants directly to researchers, sometimes on a scale that is generous by any international standard. Some of this funding is channelled directly from state sources, as well as from universities’ own revenue sources.

Hence, for individual scholars in these universities, rewards are higher for publishing in prestigious journals or registering patents than for winning grants. Moreover, universities and agencies in the region tend to have simpler research support offices than European universities do, with few ties to counterparts elsewhere. Administrative offices lend secretarial support but rarely serve higher-level functions, such as writing grant applications.

These differences suggest that building the organisations that successful Horizon Europe applications require will prove a challenge for new associate members in Asia, even if European counterparts are willing to lend a hand in capacity-building. Doing good science could be insufficient preparation. Without support or guidance from education ministries, some universities will struggle to see what organisational changes they might need. Even writing big grant applications will be a great challenge to them. But, in South Korea, there are no signs that the ministry is ready or willing to offer that support.

An additional twist lies in the geopolitical context to Horizon Europe’s expansion. The growth of dual-use technologies, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the rise of US-China rivalry have launched a challenge to open science. But in the background to Seoul’s Horizon accession is a sense that building ties with a third global power base, Europe, could help manage the risks associated with China-US rivalry. This consciousness might boost Asia’s engagement with Horizon Europe, as consciousness of European integration objectives has driven participation within Europe.

On the other hand, politicising science in this way could be seen as exacerbating the challenge to open science and increase inertia around Horizon Europe participation in Asia.

In short, while the science underlying greater European-Asian research integration is sound, the politics of that integration needs careful management.

Hyejin Kim is a senior lecturer in political science at the National University of Singapore. Erik Mobrand is professor in international studies at Seoul National University. Sylvia Schwaag Serger is professor of research policy at Lund University.

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