Assuming responsibility for key technologies

At a joint conference with the Royal Academy of Engineering on 2 July, our President Rik Van de Walle shared how leaders in government, research funders and universities can assume responsibility around key technologies.
12th July 2021
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    Dear Max, thank you very much for giving me the floor and also of course for your excellent work in leading the joint Task Force Key Technologies between CESAER and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

    My gratitude also to our friends in the Academy for hosting this online conference and especially to Sir Jim McDonald, the current President of the Academy and my predecessor as President of CESAER.

    Dear friends and colleagues, a warm welcome also from me to this second day of our conference on Key technologies shaping the future.

    First allow me to make a very short introduction to our association CESAER which started in 1990.

    We are 53 universities from all over Europe and beyond united in our conviction around the importance of science and technology.

    Our world, and the world for universities of Science & Technology (S&T), has developed tremendously in the last three decades.

    At our thirtieth anniversary and amidst great upheavals and global challenges we take the opportunity to lift our gaze and look ahead for the next 30 years, especially in the light of our rapidly changing world.

    Let me start by sharing a few thoughts around this rapidly changing context.

    First, times have changed profoundly and humanity and planet Earth face major challenges ranging from the current pandemic to climate change and increasing inequality.

    The knowledge triangle - research, education and innovation - will play a crucial role in tackling these global challenges, and universities are key knowledge generators at the core of the knowledge triangle.

    In addition, the globalist world order, with liberal democracies seen as the core, is increasingly being challenged (the end of ‘The End of History’).

    From a European perspective, there is increasing turbulence both inside and outside the EU, and the last few years an increasingly introverted United States has weakened global institutions and links. A new White House may bring some balance back, but some changes may prove hard to reverse.

    Just a few years ago, the new normal referred to geopolitics under the Trump administration and after the Brexit vote, while the new normal now increasingly refers to pandemic geopolitics such as the distribution of vaccines and the use of vaccination passports.

    In relation to global challenges and the changing geopolitical order, universities and researchers are confronted with more expectations from various stakeholders: they are, for instance, expected to create jobs and boost economic development, safeguard academic freedom and institutional autonomy, assume social responsibility, contribute to sustainability, keep knowledge safe and control its export for (national) security reasons.

    Resilient universities risk being perceived as part of the ´exploiting elite´ and serving vested interests.

    In addition to these complex expectation patterns, the exponential growth of scientific data and digitalisation have already transformed many aspects of science, technology, learning and teaching.

    In parallel, rapidly developing key technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, nanotechnologies and life-science technologies are adding complexities as developments in science and technology are often outpacing political and societal developments.

    For example, in the field of artificial intelligence and facial-recognition technologies, there has been a recent public backlash about millions of photos having been scraped from social media accounts to help train algorithms, but none of the people in the photos had been asked for permission.

    The result is that in these areas, researchers and their universities often find themselves in uncharted territory with nascent and poorly developed guidelines and rules.

    In response to the changes in these four domains, the societal role of science and technology is evolving rapidly.

    Moving forward, there are three areas where we as a community need to pay special attention: (i) to break down barriers, (ii) to push the frontier and (iii) to assume responsibility.

    In the remainder of my presentation I will briefly touch upon these.

    Open global cooperation and competition are vital to our community, as universities of S&T operate at the very forefront of (i) equipping researchers, innovators, learners and teachers with agency and of (ii) advancing S&T for great changes and transformations.

    Open global cooperation and competition are thus foundational for excellence in S&T, allowing the best to find each other, work together to solve complex problems and use the best methods and tools available.

    In other words, European research, education and innovation thrive in global environments and participation of the best from institutions outside of the EU is deeply beneficial to the EU, its universities and the ecosystem in which they flourish. We must thus all work together to prevent the formation of barriers, and to remove existing ones. One example is complicated rules and paperwork creating obstacles for the mobility of researchers across Europe.

    Europe's history has proven that open cooperation and competition are essential to boost excellence, achieve inclusion, and bring peace and prosperity to our societies.

    In addition to breaking down barriers, we must renew our efforts to push the frontier.

    In light of our urgent challenges, investigator-driven frontier research (such as the research funded by the European Research Council) has come under increasing pressure.

    Some are arguing that we must meet urgent challenges by redirecting funding away from investigator-driven, frontier research towards more politically-decided, top-down priorities.

    Let us be clear: supporting frontier research is not a luxury. It is a foundational part of tackling complex issues, for the simple reason that these issues call for novel ideas and thinking beyond the frontier of our knowledge.

    Many of our most pressing challenges are pressing precisely because they do not yield to today’s understanding and tools.

    My third point is around assuming responsibility.

    We as universities, leaders, researchers and students have a particular responsibility around key technologies and their developments, to prevent harm and guide whom they will benefit.

    Ethics and values are vital here, and they come from within and cannot be created or enforced from the outside (e.g. enforced by regulation).

    A key reference document here is the Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU), published in 1988 and reviewed in 2020.

    The MCU lays down key principles, values and responsibilities for universities, and the academic freedom and institutional autonomy needed for universities to take on their responsibilities.

    So to summarise my introduction, let us make sure that we ‘do our homework’ to ensure that key technologies are for the benefit of humankind and help ‘build forward’ Europe and our world after the pandemic, to use the words of European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel during the European Research and Innovation Days last week.

    While there is much for us universities to do - we do, however, not operate in a vacuum. There are especially risks, which we must avoid, that universities will become instruments in the geopolitical global competition.

    We are ready and willing to assume responsibility and we invite policymakers and funders in the EU, UK, all of Europe and globally to join us!

    In this context I congratulate the moderators, speakers and panelists in the sessions yesterday for their highly inspiring contributions.

    I thank again our colleagues in the Royal Academy for joining forces with us in CESAER in organising this event and I look forward to our sessions today where we will explore a ‘Net zero world in 30 years’ and ‘Envisioning learning and teaching in 30 years’ with the perspective on what we can and should do today.

    Welcome again to Day 2 of the conference Key technologies shaping the future.



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