International cooperation is the key to global recovery


International collaboration is as important now as ever before. We find ourselves in a global fight with a common enemy – one that affects not only all cities and countries but the international mobility of students and scholarly exchange.

Yet, at a political level, multilateralism has been in short supply. While communities around the world have stepped up to support the vulnerable, cooperate over social distancing and celebrate key workers, national governments continue to plough individual furrows.

The contrast with the research response could not be starker. International scientists have stepped into the void, sharing the virus’ gene sequencing data long before a pandemic was declared. Global pharmaceutical companies such as GSK and Sanofi, and also innovative start-ups like BionNTech, have merged their resources in the search for a vaccine. And wherever you look – from the Covid-19 Clinical Research Coalition, to the Covid Therapeutics Accelerator – collaborative trials, papers and projects are progressing at unprecedented speed and on an unparalleled scale.

As chair of the Russell Group of UK universities and president of the U15 association of German universities, we are proud of the role international research is playing in tackling the pandemic.

From the pioneering vaccine work taking place at Oxford and Imperial, to the cutting-edge medical research spearheaded by German university spin-offs such as Spindiag and CureVac, to the testing capacity supplied by the University of Glasgow’s Lighthouse Lab and the medical care provided by Germany’s University Clinics, our institutions have stepped up in the fight against Covid-19.

The global academic community has grasped an important truth: that it is only through collective action that we can protect our societies and restart economies. Covid-19 will be tamed by working together closely, openly and in a spirit of trust.

In the collaboration landscape the long partnership between the UK and Germany is of special importance. We work more closely together than any two other countries participating in the EU’s research framework, Horizon 2020. Since the programme began in 2014, U15 and Russell Group universities have collaborated on more than 600 separate projects.

These shared endeavours maximise impact and amplify return. We know that joint publications by British and German researchers deliver strikingly higher impact than research undertaken in just one of the countries.

But for these German-UK partnerships to continue, it will be critically important that we can access joint funding. As the European Union considers how association to Horizon Europe will work for third countries, including the UK, our clear preference is for an early association to be negotiated. If that isn’t possible, we hope a scheme can be created to bridge EU funding so that collaboration between our two countries can continue as seamlessly as it did under Horizon 2020.

This is crucial as together our leading universities can play a key role in boosting the recovery to come. In three broad areas: delivering economic growth, supporting societal recovery and improving the resilience of our key institutions, we can marshal our collective resources to help drive a common agenda.

First, the economic response. Even optimistic scenarios accept that the return to growth after the Covid-19 shock will be a process not an event. Nevertheless, universities can help spur recovery by developing new ideas and cutting-edge technologies. To support this, we are calling for a new alliance between research universities and government – at both a domestic and European level – to turbo-charge economic growth by backing the research base and bringing industry and innovators together to create high-value spin-out companies and the jobs that come with them.

Second, we must aid societal recovery. The effects of Covid-19 will be felt long after the disease itself is brought under control. In helping to deliver the skills agenda and educating future generations, we can lead the fight against inequality, equip our young people to thrive in a changing labour market and offer enhanced retraining to our adult population. Moreover, as home to the humanities and the cultural and social sciences, universities can help frame our future political debate and strengthen democratic values.

And, third, we must support resilience. This crisis has revealed the fragility of international systems and the need to think deeply about how we prepare our health services, social security systems and political institutions for future challenges and unforeseen events. Research will be crucial to both boosting this capacity and advising policymakers on the way ahead – especially as we move to confront known issues coming down the track such as climate change, digitalisation and an ageing society.

In all this, collaboration is key and the universities we represent are committed to remaining the strongest of partners. Just as the response from the international research community shows that the virus will only be overcome via common solutions, so too must we work collectively to help shape a recovery that works for all.

It may be an uncertain world, but there is one thing that we know for sure: that, together, we can achieve much more than the sum of our parts.

Author Bios: Hans-Jochen Schiewer is rector of the University of Freiburg and President of the U15. Anton Muscatelli is vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow and chair of the Russell Group.