Science and the Refugees

Posted on 18. February 2016

by Anna Harpviken

anna-harpvikenAs a girl that had her Ph.D. party all planned out at the age of six, and with two parents that work as researchers, I have lived to learn the importance of science. Research contributes to innovation, stirs public debate and opens up our minds to new possibilities. From my point of view, these qualities are essential in today’s Europe; this not only applies to the hard sciences and innovation, but also – and maybe more importantly – to today’s reality, in order to understand the current refugee crisis. Science and scientific work is essential in developing ways to cope with the issues that all European countries are faced with during this time. Therefore, the European community ought to reflect upon how and in what ways we can best use our research resources.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than one million refugees arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the past year, countless stories have been told of how different European governments have chosen to react to the increasing stream of refugees arriving at their “gates”. Everything from the highly controversial Danish ’Jewelry-Bill’, to Germany’s and Austria’s open borders (till last September). It is obvious that the way we choose to act in this situation will have consequences, both for the future of each country, for the future of the European union and for the future of the global society. This point was also emphasized by Carlos Moedas, EU’s Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, in a speech before the European Commission on February 4th (see here). Keeping this in mind, it is essential that the policies that are agreed upon are based on solid knowledge, rather than being results of rash, irrational decisions, pushed forward by a sense of stress and urgency. Research that is targeted at the current situation should be essential in informing policy and creating a long-term strategy.

The importance of research cannot be underestimated, nor the manner in which scientific findings can and should contribute in influencing the decisions being made at a governmental (and even higher level). As Mr. Moedas formulated it in a speech he gave at Helsinki University in August 2015; real progress comes from how we apply our knowledge to the world around us, together. Like the commissioner, I believe it is essential that we strengthen the impact of the research that is being done, and make use of the knowledge that exists in a practical sense. Understanding our current situation, identifying the challenges, as well as spelling out what knowledge we have (and need), is at the core in developing a strategy that is future-oriented and sustainable.

For understanding the current flow of refugees, important fields of research should include a focus both on the short- and long-term effects of migration, the consequences for the immigrants and new European citizens, and the existing population of the EU. Topics might be what effect our current policies have on the integration of people that are granted asylum, the sustainability of the decisions that are being made and what other decisions might be viable, as well as where we are to focus our efforts: only at the receiving end, in Europe, or also at the source of migration, addressing the causes of it? Of course, we can never precisely predict what will happen, but it is crucial that our decisions come from a place of knowledge, and that we are aware of the potential consequences of the decisions that are made. If this is done, we are not only able to avoid the worst mistakes, but also to formulate adequate policies for the future.

To scale up the research on immigration, I believe an important step is to seize the unique opportunity we have in the EU at the moment to combine knowledge from several research fields from all over Europe. The possibilities within the European Union, to build upon common research, have already been amply demonstrated through the implementation of the European Research Area (ERA) and the underlying Horizon 2020 program, focusing on innovation all over Europe. As mentioned in the statements of ERA; research and innovation benefits greatly from the ability of scientists, businesses and citizens to access, share and use knowledge, all over Europe (for more information on the European Research Area and the Horizon 2020, see here and here). In addition to these measures, Mr. Moedas – in a recent speech for the European Commission –pointed to a newly launched Scientific Advice Mechanism, which will work to connect scientific research with the policymaking needs of the Commission. This, I believe, will be an essential step towards better-founded decision-making, focusing on a positive, lasting impact.

Horizon 2020, which includes a call to do research on migration called ‘The European Union and the Global Challenge of Migration’, is set up to address some of the questions raised earlier. However, it primarily addresses the links between migration and development in refugee-sending countries, and it is a plan with a rather long timeframe. I believe it can be essential for the countries of the European Union, both separately and together, to advance their ability to adapt rapidly to changes in the world. An effective overview of the current status quo of the research, a common focus on what information is needed and a mutual plan to do this research can be essential for the European Union to handle situations like the one we are in. If we succeed in mobilizing our knowledge and research results, without overlooking any areas, we will be much more effective and, more importantly, successful, in handling crises and surprises in the long run.

This is a crucial time for the European Union. How we choose to handle the refugee crisis we have been facing over the past year will affect us, and the global society, for many years to come. We have to create a climate of debate founded on sound research. We are also responsible for mobilising the knowledge that we have, to identify gaps, and to make new research happen. As the now grown, girl that once upon a time planned a party for a doctoral dissertation that still is out of reach, I firmly believe in the impact of research. Watching the flow of refugees and how these are treated all over the Union, I hope that our ability to work together on research related both to the present and the future, will contribute to a positive, sustainable development in policy making and a bright future for the new, even more diverse European Union.