‘The fog of diplomacy at Wednesday’s EU-China Summit distractedonlookers from the critical issue facing Europe’s futurecompetitiveness: its ability to remain a global power ininnovation.
With the event heavily over-shadowed by tension over Chinesecurrency policy and bilateral trade imbalances, there were nobreakthroughs. Moreover, key issues on the agenda such as Beijing’sreticence to open Chinese state purchasing procedures to Europeancompanies; and the EU’s reluctance to recognize China as a “marketeconomy” will not determine the destiny of the European continentanyway-the harnessing and application of knowledge will.
Europe’s future as a world-leading innovation hub is alreadychallenged by the rise of China, and the summit took scant measuresto address this and seize what should be a very meaningfulpartnership. If Europe is to retain its economic pre-eminence, itmust act urgently now to “lock-in” much greater science andtechnology-led business collaboration with China.
The key question is whether Europe’s leaders will seize themoment, or fail to capitalize on this major opportunity to spureconomic growth? The omens are not good. With policy at a roadblockin many European capitals, and much initiative focused uponnational rather than international issues, the continent is at aneffective standstill except for momentum generated by Brussels,especially through the EU’s 2020 initiative.
It is no exaggeration to say that Europe is facing an innovationemergency as Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner forResearch, Innovation and Science, asserted Wednesday. Thissituation is a potential tragedy as, right now, a “one-time-only”opportunity is arising to move EU-China scientific andtechnological ties on to a different level. However, this windowwill last perhaps only 5-10 years before China’s innovation systemapproaches, and perhaps overtakes, that of Europe. Seizing thishistoric opportunity, while there still exists mutual bilateralinterest, requires a fundamental shift in the scale of Europeanthinking and effort.
Understanding the fleeting nature of this opportunity requiresan appreciation of the rapidity of China’s emergence as a scienceand technology superpower. It is spending some 1.5% of GDP on R& D, twice the rate ten years ago, and may reach the U.S.figure of approximately 2.5% by 2020 (the EU average is about1.8%). It has also quickly become the world’s second largestproducer of scientific knowledge, as measured by the number ofresearch publications.
To be sure, China’s overall scientific position right now issometimes exaggerated. Concerns rightly persist, for instance,about whether its educational system sufficiently encouragesindividual creativity (often key in forging scientificbreakthroughs), lack of systems thinking, and whether Chineseenterprises are capable of absorbing so much research.
Such issues mean the scale of China’s future achievement isuncertain. But, it is indisputable that we are witnessing the dawnof a new science and technology world order.Firstly, the era ofNorth American and European scientific dominance is ending, withfundamental implications not just for the global economy but alsogeopolitics. Secondly, the diffusion of scientific expertise ishelping create a globalized commons of knowledge which China’smillions of scientists and engineers are well placed to tapinto.
This transformation is, in turn, catalyzing a more collaborativeand trans-border model of cooperation which will redefine the R& D world of the 21st century. Already in China there are some1,200 foreign R & D centres. The key opportunity here for Chinais to continue moving up the R & D value chain. Its firms willbecome innovation powerhouses and rivals to European counterparts.We will ignore this at our peril.
How should Europe secure the prize of locking in collaborationwith China before our opportunity disappears? Firstly, every linkof the innovation chain from research to commercialization must bestrengthened, including through the Europe 2020 strategy. We alsomust give greater urgency to national initiatives to reform R &D and innovation systems.
At this crucial point, however, it will not be enough fornational and EU leaders to endlessly debate plans. The time fortalking is over. We must act urgently and what is required includessound, detailed budgeting to facilitate successfulimplementation.
Europe must capitalize on existing strengths and find synergiesbetween Chinese growth needs, and the potential and objectives ofEuropean industry, research and consultancy. Europe’s strengthsinclude exceptionally high quality of research; ability to work ininterdisciplinary fashion (which makes research increasinglyeffective); and a very successful international corporate sector.World-leading specialities include in health with GlaxoSmithKlineand AstraZeneca, and food and nutrition with Nestlé andUnilever.
In food and nutrition, there is a need in China forinternational scientific expertise owing to the need for betterproduction efficiency and quality: food production scale in ruralareas is below critical mass, and food quality is not suitable forexport. China cannot, as yet, tackle this issue as it lacks asufficiently robust quality assurance system.
If Europe can raise its game and step up to the historicalchallenge it confronts, compelling value propositions can also bedeveloped in virtually all fields of science and research,including biotechnology, medical technology, nano-electronics andembedded systems, pharmaceuticals, and creative and design.
The challenges are real, but if we can surmount them, the prizeswill be stronger bilateral partnerships; locking in China to worldtrade and investment rules; and a new foundation stone forsustainable growth. Will our leaders seize the opportunity, or letit slip?’
Dirk Jan van den Berg
[bron: hij publiceerde dit opiniestuk in the Wall StreetJournal]