Managing the Risks of International Collaboration
A DISCUSSION OFNavigating the Gray Zones of International Research
Over a short time span, international academic cooperation has gone from being regarded as unambiguously positive and widely promoted by governments and research funders to something that is complicated, controversial, and even contested. Rising geopolitical frictions combined with competition over dominance of key technologies lie at the heart of this shift. As a result, universities and researchers who had come to take the global enterprise of science for granted are now navigating issues such as dual use regulations, export controls, screening of foreign students and scholars, and whether researchers should be required to disclose their international sources of funding. Governments are devising or considering measures to restrict or control international academic exchanges deemed a threat to national interests.
Researchers and university administrators are increasingly calling for clearer and more concrete guidance and frameworks for international collaboration. One challenge is how to balance rules for international scientific engagement with the preservation of academic freedom to choose research topics and partners. In “Navigating the Gray Zones of International Research” (Issues, Winter 2023), Tommy Shih offers some important insight here. In particular, he suggests that research funders can play an important role in developing global norms for collaboration. I agree. Such norms could, among other things, constitute a valuable step toward a framework of global governance for research that would safeguard international scientific cooperation while acknowledging national interests and protecting ethical principles. This is particularly important at a time when growing caution in academia and government risks preventing or ending valuable cross-border academic exchange and cooperation.
Having worked in university administration, government, and research funding organizations, I have seen cases of research cooperation that clearly should not have happened because they violated ethical standards or undermined national security. Preventing such collaborations should be a priority for researchers, universities, and funders. At the same time, there is currently a growing tendency for researchers and universities to shy away from collaborative efforts that could significantly benefit science, society, and the planet because of some perceived potential risks. This concern is well captured in a report titled University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach, published in November 2022, which states: “An important aspect of this review process is to consider the risks of not undertaking proposed engagements, as well as the risks of doing so.”
As Shih correctly points out, international research cooperation is not as binary—unequivocally good or bad—as it is sometimes made out to be. Some cooperation has significant potential benefits while at the same time incurring risks. Binary guidelines are not suitable for handling such cases; rather they require instruments for managing risks.
Rising tensions between the two largest funders and producers of scientific knowledge—the United States and China—risk turning international academic cooperation into a zero-sum game that can hurt both science and humanity’s prospects of addressing pressing challenges. Preventing unsuitable research cooperation without scaring off collaborations that are beneficial and noncontroversial is a concern for institutions and countries committed to good science and prospering societies. Another is managing collaborations, which could bring significant benefits but also incur certain risks. Addressing these issues requires a combination of norms, support, and rules—and should be a priority for research performers and funders alike.
Sylvia Schwaag Serger
Professor, School of Economics and Management
Lund University, Sweden
Chair, Scientific Council of Formas (Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development)
Chair, Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development