European Commission focuses on combating R&I foreign interference

Published 21/01/2022

The European Commission has released a staff working document to attempt to tackle foreign interference in research and innovation at universities across the continent.

The document aims to help universities put in their own practices to help mitigate “risks and challenges from abroad”, giving them the tools to keep internationalisation moving without putting their research in jeopardy.

“Together with the member states and research and innovation partners across Europe, we have developed a useful toolkit to help us protect our fundamental values, key research findings and intellectual assets,” said Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

The long, but “non-exhaustive” list looks at methods of risk mitigation centring around four areas: institution values, governance, university partnerships and cybersecurity.

“The realisation of academic freedom depends on respect for other values, rights and principles, including freedom of speech,” the report reads.

“This includes but is not limited to academics and researchers – the specific requirements flowing from such principles must be responsive to the evolving university environment,” it continues.

The document recommends consulting the global Academic Freedom Index as a first point of orientation, with a following more “detailed assessment of the research, education and institutional environment in the country and at the specific partner institution”.

It also recommends conducting a vulnerability assessment, as well as strengthening commitment to academic freedom and integrity at all levels, providing training to everyone where such values are at risk.

“Critically, it says that institutions should “continue to cooperate” with those in “repressive settings”

Critically, it says that institutions should “continue to cooperate” with those in “repressive settings”, so as to avoid stigmatising students from “non-liberal institutional environments.”

When it comes to governance, it recommends publishing a code of conduct for foreign interference, and establishing a committee around it, so that awareness can be raised and potential risks can be monitored.

“Engaging in international partnerships in research and education is important for European HEIs and RPOs – they contribute to diversity in the classroom and the quality of education,” the report reads.

“Institutions and/or the entities overseeing and/or funding them, may seek to exploit or compromise collaboration or to influence a partnership deal through providing negative incentives, such as threats, or positive incentives such as financial arrangements,” it adds.

The document suggests “general prerequisites” for reviewing procedures of partnerships, including a risk management sub-committee and “identifying and protecting the institution’s “crown jewels”, and understand the potential technological, security and economic interest from third countries”.

Third countries, in this context, refer to countries that are not a member of the EU, as well as a “country or territory whose citizens do not enjoy the EU right to free movement”.

Cybersecurity also factors into the risk mitigation recommended by the document, especially in a climate where technology is so vital to the storage and protection of data.

“Cyberattacks aim to exploit the vulnerabilities of the three most important asset groups at HEIs and RPOs,” the report reads.

“This includes people visiting, studying and working at organisations, technical and support infrastructure and intellectual property from research.”

The recommendations in this pillar including performing Open Source Intelligence investigations on a regular basis, physical access controls and, in the even that a cyberattack occurs, developing “situational awareness capabilities” and plans for “incident handling”.

While these tools to mitigate risk and protect intellectual property from threat actors are comprehensive, there is a possible risk that cooperation may falter when HEIs and RPOs are having to consistently protect themselves from foreign interference.

Talking to EURACTIV, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association Thomas Jørgensen said that they would not hinder cooperations, citing that the guidelines were a “welcome initiative”.

“We have developed a useful toolkit to help us protect our fundamental values, key research findings and intellectual asset”

“It’s a tool to facilitate cooperation where this might be difficult,” Jørgensen said.

“That is a very positive way of looking at it – we stay open, but we do it responsibly,” he added.

The Commission insists that using the comprehensive approach, comprising four phases – awareness-raising, prevention, response and recovery – will “ensure a balance between risk reduction and resilience enhancement” – and, consequently, dealing with difference is a “constructive way”.

“Raising awareness and implementing preventive measures is key to tackle threats of foreign intrusion that target critical vulnerabilities and extend across all research activities, scientific domains, research outputs, researchers and innovators,” Gabriel added.

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