Scientists and spies ‘should work together on research risks’

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Australia’s intelligence and research communities should join forces to evaluate science’s “new world order”, according to an Australian National University (ANU) policy briefing.

ANU’s National Security College argues that the two sectors, which have increasingly been at loggerheads, should jointly judge how to remain connected to the “cutting-edge” of global science and technology “without compromising national security, sovereignty or values”.

The era when scientists were personally acquainted with “the best people” in their fields has now passed, the briefing says, as US domination gives way to an “increasingly multipolar system”. China produces roughly the same share of global science as the US and could be spending twice as much by 2050, while Japan, Germany and South Korea are also significant players.

“The first question for science policy is, how do we know who is doing what?” the paper says. “By pulling together global datasets on scientific publications, partnerships and patents, Australia could build a new open-source analysis capability to help us keep up.”

This “new kind of partnership between the intelligence and science communities” would help universities and researchers work out “where the real risks are and where international collaboration really matters”.

The paper was written by Paul Harris, director of ANU’s North American Liaison Office and an adjunct fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. It advocates a “systematic review” to determine how funding and institutions should adjust to the new world order.

The foreign affairs department should also resume work on its science diplomacy strategy, which stalled in 2018.

The recommendations have emerged as universities find themselves targeted by multiple security-related inquisitions and regulatory interventions. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is looking into national security risks affecting Australian higher education, and the recently passed Foreign Relations Act gives Canberra the power to veto universities’ agreements with foreign agencies.

The government wants to assume supervisory powers over universities’ cybersecurity arrangements by placing them under the purview of the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act. Cybersecurity and foreign interference also fall under the scope of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s new higher education integrity unit.

Visiting scholars’ visas have been revoked and Australian research grants quashed for undisclosed security reasons, and federal agencies are developing a confidential new list of “sensitive” fields in which Australian universities should eschew collaborations – all despite detailed security guidelines produced in 2019 by the generally well-regarded University Foreign Interference Taskforce.

In a podcast, Mr Harris said it was inevitable that the increasing US-China competition would make governments view science and technology “more through a security lens”. Nevertheless, Australia had “distinctive national capabilities” that were valuable on the global stage.

“We’re not doomed to just accept what other bigger players do, but we have to be very clear-eyed about what we have and what we can do with it,” he said. “We may decide that in certain fields…it’s really important that we maintain links with certain countries, even though we know there are risks.

“Or we might decide that in certain fields it’s really important that we double down and invest more strategically in working with allies and like-minded countries. But at the moment we lack an evidence base for making those decisions in science and technology policy. All the information is out there but it hasn’t been brought together.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com



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