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Research ‘must brace’ for int’l political shocks

Researchers, institutions and scientists need to prepare for future geopolitical shocks that could limit international networks and “dramatically narrow the range of potential collaborative partners”, according to a new report.

Russia’s ailing position in international science has made it easy for the west to deny it access to research collaboration opportunities, but lessons can still be learnt, the report said. Photo: pexels

Russia, on the other hand, ranks only 16th in the world for research output

To deal with potential future obstacles, universities need to develop clear policies to vet international research partnerships, diversify academic partners to “avoid dependencies that can become vulnerabilities” and broaden their understanding of a rapidly evolving international research landscape.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Harvard Kennedy School, the study draws on new data from 20,000 academic journals, finding that China is now the world’s biggest spender on R&D.

In the last two decades, it has become has become the first or second most important research partner for many countries, while Russia’s science base and research output has deteriorated and become marginalised.

China is now the first or second most frequent research partner for all G7 countries, as well as the Scandinavian and Baltic states, Australia, Singapore and South Korea, the paper noted. Russia, on the other hand, ranks only 16th in the world for research output.

However, lessons need to be learnt from the events that led to Russia being isolated following its attack on Ukraine. “Recent events will have wider relevance for western collaboration with China and other authoritarian regimes that may be tempted to pursue expansionist foreign policies,” the report contended.

Principled and robust collaboration with China ought to be maintained to “protect our values and also enable our academic institutions to remain at the forefront of global science”, it continued.

“When the geopolitics shift, global science rapidly goes from win-win to battlespace,” former UK universities minister and co-author of the report, Jo Johnson, said.

“Western countries have excluded Russia from science partnerships in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, which has a clear read-across for what could happen in other theatres in East Asia.”

Research institutions should “publicly and repeatedly” commit to the core value of free and open inquiry in a bid to strengthen the research environment, the paper added.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has called for a “novel approach” to shape the country’s international science policy relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“In our multipolar world, we need today more than ever a strategically positioned ‘science diplomacy’ that enables understanding, dialogue and negotiation of conflicts in the scientific sphere, even in times of increasing conflicts and fierce global competition,” DAAD president Joybrato Mukherjee said on July 6.

Both DAAD and the Policy Institute report note the importance of cultural expertise.

Overseas studies and joint scientific research projects create “long-term mutual bonds” between both people and institutions, DAAD said, while the Policy Institute paper called for a “cadre of professionals” with relevant language skills, historical knowledge, and cultural competency to be nurtured.

While the DAAD paper does not mention China, the Policy Institute research said that training in Chinese language skills and cultural and competency should be a national security priority.

“Universities must also prepare for the worst by diversifying their academic partnerships”

Governments should fund Advanced Mandarin language study both at universities at home and in mainland China or Taiwan as well as postgraduate study high quality programs in mainland China and Taiwan.

“There is an obvious risk that today’s highly globalised networks of knowledge creation wither as nations fall back on research undertaken in the narrow confines of their own institutions and those of like-minded countries,” Johnson added.

“While universities will understandably hope for the best, they must also prepare for the worst by diversifying their academic partnerships and international student bodies to mitigate the risk of financial and strategic dependencies on potentially hostile autocratic countries.”

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