Europe needs to understand Chinese research – or the risk of it being misused

Europe needs to understand Chinese research – or the risk of it being misused

“It’s quite a fragmented picture across Europe,” said Rebecca Arcesati, an author of the report. “That stands in contrast with China’s investment in information collection which supports the state’s efforts to acquire foreign technology and knowledge.”

Story Highlights:

  • There is an information “asymmetry” between China, which has a long-standing global network on the lookout for foreign technology, and Europe, which only recently woke up to the fact that China might be a technological rival, according to the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

  • Attempts to hammer out a roadmap between Brussels and Beijing that would set the terms of research cooperation remain stalled, although negotiations are continuing, with a new meeting planned for late spring.

The report cites a string of scandals in Denmark where academics collaborated on sensitive Chinese research without apparently realising their mistake.

Europe needs more information on China’s innovation system, including whether prospective research partners are linked to the Chinese military or security apparatus, according to the report, Sharpening Europe’s approach to engagement with China on science, technology and innovation.

In one case, a professor at Aalborg University supervised a Chinese PhD student who it is feared was working on new electrical components for the Chinese navy. In another, researchers worked with a company implicated in mass surveillance of repressed Uyghurs in the country’s west.

In the past, Chinese partners have sometimes initiated partnerships “without the European side knowing who their counterpart is, or what connections they have,” said Arcesati.

Europe also requires much better data on where Chinese research strengths lie, using papers, citations and patents to get an early read on where breakthroughs are happening, and so strike up fruitful partnerships, according to Arcesati.

“European partners really need much more granular information about where exactly Chinese research and companies have a competitive advantage, where capabilities within specific tech ecosystems and value chains lie,” she said. Science diplomats

As it stands, China has a “an information advantage vis-à-vis Europe”, having since the 1950s developed a comprehensive system monitoring foreign patents, publications and policies. China also boasts a network of more than 140 so-called “science and technology diplomats” stationed in embassies and consulates in 52 countries, revealed an analysis last year by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, based at Georgetown University.

These “diplomats” analyse what technology China needs at home, find it abroad in corporate or state labs, and then draw up a list of targets for nominally private Chinese companies to invest in or draw up licensing agreements. This information asymmetry risks putting Europeans at a disadvantage when forming partnerships.

The report is the latest sign of concern that Europe needs to up its game when it comes to understanding Chinese science and technology – and indeed the country as a whole. Last November, the EU was warned that it needs to introduce “continuous monitoring of Chinese STI activities in the EU and China” in recommendations from one of its own advisory bodies. 

Like China, Europe could draw up a list of “foreign technology targets”, the MERICS report suggests, and more actively use a system of “scientific attachés” abroad.  When setting up research collaborations, Europeans tend to be less assertive about the agenda, said Arcesati, drawing on her own conversations with other researchers and government officials. “That may be because they don’t know as well as the Chinese side where the opportunities lie, so they do not articulate their interests as clearly.”

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