We need an open dialogue on global research engagement

Science is becoming an increasingly integrated part of our everyday lives. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic television viewers and social media users have been overwhelmed with scientific facts and analyses as well as disinformation.

Although the connection between science and society has always existed, science has tended to be seen as a separate sector with its own yardsticks. The term ‘ivory tower’ has been frequently used by politicians, researchers and other opinion leaders to represent the introversion of science.

However, today scientific research is seen as an integral part of our approach to addressing global challenges related to climate, environment, health, energy and food production. While many of these challenges are growing in magnitude, international collaboration is also being hampered, despite being a basic precondition for finding and implementing solutions to shared global problems.

Increased nationalism, populism, draconian pandemic measures and the war in Ukraine are the backdrop to the growing, complex conditions for cross-border exchanges, including those in research.

Research conducted at universities is today increasingly seen by politicians as a national resource, but it is in practice a global project. How can it be a force that contributes to solving global challenges if it is seen as a national resource that needs to be protected?

Moreover, the fact that emerging research nations are not fully allowed by established research nations to participate in shaping global norms also represents a considerable challenge.

Below I discuss three developments that are making global research engagement increasingly difficult.

Academic freedom and autonomy are in decline globally

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy have been the fundamental ideas behind the development of universities since Humboldt introduced his view of the university’s role in society in the 19th century. Globally, however, the trend in the past decade has been towards reduced institutional autonomy and academic freedom for higher education institutions, according to the Academic Freedom Index.

This is not unexpected as, in 2021, only 13% of the world’s population lived in liberal democracies, while 70% lived under authoritarian rule.

The spread of authoritarianism also continues to increase. In authoritarian countries, academic freedom and institutional autonomy generally do not have the same priority as in democratic countries.

The notions of academic freedom and autonomy have often been restricted through legislation, regulations or autocratic capriciousness that give the state considerable control over the activities of higher education institutions.

We also see similar authoritarian developments in countries that are democratic, for example, in Hungary, India, the United States and Brazil and even in countries such as Australia where the minister for education has, since 2020, had the right to veto public grant funding decisions and has used it in relation to China-related projects.

The increased geopolitical friction between countries clearly creates conflicts between different policy areas, such as national security and open science, that tend to put more pressure on global academic engagement.

Global equality and equity appear to not be ‘desirable or practical’ in reality

In developed countries, often in the West, notions of global equality and equity are commonly used by leaders as ideals in global engagement. The geopolitical frictions of the last couple of years have called into question whether these expectations only apply when collaborating countries are less developed or when they become more ‘like the West’ (ie, democratic).

In the case of China, the Western world has today a counterpart that is on an equal footing with respect to economic, scientific and military power, but diverges from the West with regard to its authoritarian governance mode.

With this comes a different view and practices related to the rule of law, transparency and human rights. This has been clearly noted in the interactions that Western actors have had with their Chinese counterparts as well countless media or political reports of how appropriate or inappropriate these collaborations are.

Of course, democratic countries should not underplay the importance of academic freedom, individual rights or democracy. But in a global multipolar power dynamic, international collaboration becomes much more embedded in value conflicts.

Here, representatives of research institutions must in some constructive way be able to have a dialogue with others who see things in a completely different way if global research collaboration is to take place, given it is contingent on a joint dialogue.

How to maintain meaningful global engagement is an extremely complicated process in a world moving towards more authoritarianism, but where the norms of exchange are based on neoliberal ideas shaped by Western hegemony.

Fears about economic well-being that build walls

Strongly linked to the challenges described above are goals concerning a country’s competitiveness and economic status.

In the West, and especially in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, science has developed largely through open exchange and welcoming foreign students who have mainly come from China and India. Well-educated students who stay and find jobs in the host country contribute to the economic well-being of that country.

But the fact that Chinese students are also returning home has likewise contributed to China’s development as a science nation (together with China’s large investments in its higher education and research system).

Today, views on educating foreign students in the affluent part of the Anglophone world are divided. On the one hand, these students are seen as an important source of income and human resources for universities. On the other hand, they are increasingly seen as potential security risks by security agencies.

Accounts of emerging scientific nations taking advantage of the open system in the West have grown in the media. The description of foreign nations undermining national competitiveness with ensuing effects on welfare affects open global engagement to the detriment of universities’ value creation.

As temperatures continue to rise globally, both literally and between nations, international research engagement risks becoming more regionalised and factionalised. University leaders need to be more aware of the current situation and the challenges described above.

A way to mitigate any adverse effects of these challenges is to foster collaborative research practices with high standards of integrity.

To this end a more inclusive and open global dialogue is necessary. Problematising around what global research engagement entails in the current geopolitical setting is long overdue and we need to spell out who has the responsibility to uphold academic principles and implement any necessary changes.

Disengagement is becoming a more common practice and, while justified in some instances, it cannot become systematic on the basis of unclear principles. Here, universities and research communities have the ultimate responsibility to clarify what the rules for global engagement should be.

It is particularly important for the research community to find avenues that can help universities move forward as an academic collective rather than as national enclaves. For this a broader portfolio of conditions and goals, including those related to economic, political, existential and scientific matters needs to be considered jointly.

For the past three years I have been working with issues related to responsible internationalisation. Much of the work has been directed towards the issues mentioned above. I have worked as a researcher with universities and have advised some of the largest funding agencies in the world.

The general recommendations I would make based on that knowledge are:

Create fora to discuss and implement recommendations for managing international research engagement: It is important to have a forum for discussion on how guidelines concerning responsible internationalisation or trusted research that have been developed for the past few years can be used and contextualised.

Do not let the extreme cases set norms: Research and collaborations that restrict human and individual rights, violate laws or have direct military use must be handled in a resolute and clear manner by authorities or university management. There must be no room for discretion in flagrant violations of norms and laws.

But it is also necessary to understand that most international collaborations will not cross such red lines. It is unfortunate if the reactions that follow from extreme cases (for example, espionage or human rights restrictions) set the norm for how international cooperation with certain countries is viewed in general.

It is important to gain a better understanding of the grey areas that are created in international research engagement and the possible ways of dealing with them.

Develop case studies to clarify the challenges and opportunities as well as trade-offs that may need to be made in international research engagement: Specific case studies of different challenges (for example, concerning the legality of research, data security or ethics) and possible paths to follow need to be identified for individuals and organisations to be better equipped to handle complex relationships. These can underpin a more comprehensive discussion about the boundaries of international research engagement.

Tommy Shih is an associate professor at Lund University, Sweden. E-mail: