EU-China research relationship ‘unbalanced’, policy head warns

Jean-Eric Paquet warns that on open data, research collaboration and academic mobility, EU-China links are not always reciprocal

September 23, 2020
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The European Union’s research relationship with China is “unbalanced”, according to one of the bloc’s policy chiefs, who has accused Beijing of failing to open up its scientific data or allow collaboration in fields where it is particularly strong.

Jean-Eric Paquet, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation, also raised concerns about Chinese internet censorship.

While stressing that cooperation should continue, particularly in areas such as climate change and sustainable development, Mr Paquet made it clear that Brussels no longer believes that scientific links with China are reciprocal.

“The relationship is perceived, and I think rightly on the European side, as unbalanced,” he told delegates during a discussion on 23 September as part of the European Research and Innovation Days, an annual EU research conference, held online this year.

“There is really essentially full access to Europe, but very cumbersome, and sometimes even formally limited, access to resources on the Chinese side,” he added.

His comments mirror growing unease in Brussels with what it sees as a similarly unbalanced economic relationship between the two powers, meaning that certain European industries are excluded from the Chinese market.

This was one of the key issues debated during a virtual summit between the EU and China held earlier this month, after which the bloc also called for “reciprocity” and a “level playing field” in science and technology.

The EU’s concerns span several areas, Mr Paquet explained.

Chinese researchers had struck up collaborations in research areas where Europe was strong, such as information technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, he said.

But it had proved much harder for European scientists to do the same for areas of expertise in China, he said. “So the reciprocity dimension is very difficult to find,” he added.

Another bone of contention is access to scientific data. In the spring, the EU created an open portal for scientists to share data and results about Covid-19.

“This is accessible to partners around the world,” Mr Paquet said. “But at the same time, the opposite [access to Chinese data] is much more difficult.”

Chinese internet censorship was another example of the “difficulties” in having a “balanced and reciprocal relationship” with China when it came to research, he continued.

And he added that he was “a bit unhappy” about uneven researcher mobility. “You [Chinese academics] are coming to Europe in great numbers, and you are bringing a lot of knowledge – you take, of course, a lot as well – but our researchers don’t go to China in the same numbers,” he said.

His comments were echoed by Charlotte Roule, vice-president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, who also told delegates that the relationship was “relatively unbalanced”.

Over the past four years, she said, the EU had spent far more than China on joint research and innovation projects between the two powers. “So we have a discrepancy here,” she said.

Brussels is now creating a common framework, set to be released in the “coming months”, that should more clearly define how European universities and research organisations should partner with China, taking into account issues such as “security” and intellectual property rights, added Mr Paquet.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: EU-China sharing lacks reciprocity

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Reader's comments (1)

The situation can be improved if more EU researchers can speak, read and write Chinese ?

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