Balancing academic freedom and intelligence security

On 14 November 2019 Australia’s Minister for Education Dan Tehan released Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector. The guidelines were developed by the government’s University Foreign Interference Taskforce and form part of Australia’s Counter Foreign Interference or CFI Strategy.

The CFI Strategy dates back to a 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper titled Guarding Against Foreign Interference. Shortly after the release of that White Paper, in April 2018, the Australian government appointed Chris Teal as the first National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator.

A raft of new security-related legislation was also passed in 2018, including the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018 and the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018.

Less than a week after the Australian guidelines were released, on 19 November 2019, the United States Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released its staff report titled Threats to the US Research Enterprise: China’s talent recruitment plans.

The subcommittee’s hearing held on the same day was titled “Securing the US Research Enterprise from China’s Talent Recruitment Plans” and heard testimony from both research and security community members.

National security vs openness

In both Australia and the US, as elsewhere, leaders and policy-makers face two major challenges: first, the need to develop a coordinated inter-agency strategy for securing national research, particularly research with security implications; and second, the need to support and develop an open and collaborative research environment within which global engagement maximises the effectiveness with which global challenges, including security challenges, can be addressed.

So far as the need for a coordinated inter-agency strategy is concerned, Australia may appear to be far ahead of the US, where the subcommittee report found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation “continues to lack a coordinated national outreach programme”.

Yet it also needs to be remembered that the scale of the challenge in the US is so much larger than in Australia, which has around one 10th of the research funding of the US – a behemoth of R&D funding equivalent to China.

Moreover, while the latest Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or ASIO report makes much of the need to protect Australia’s intellectual property, in reality much of Australia’s intellectual property is already owned by foreigners, be it US, European, Japanese or Chinese parent companies.

It also bears keeping in mind that when the US complains of Chinese theft of intellectual property, it is not complaining that China has breached the rules of an open, competitive market.

Intellectual property (IP) rights are monopolies granted by law. Monopoly is the opposite of a freely competitive market. Global free trade is a misnomer, given that the World Trade Organization or WTO does not adhere to an anti-trust regime. There is no global body to combat free-market distorting monopolies. Quite the opposite – the World Intellectual Property Organization and the WTO both serve to protect the owners of IP monopoly rights.

So far as the second challenge noted above is concerned, there is a careful balance to be struck. Decision-makers and the research community must work to protect the security of national university structures without undermining the basic principles of academic freedom and openness.

In both the US and Australia, policy documents indicate a widespread consensus that security concerns should not lead to stepping back from international collaboration. Security should rather safeguard academic freedom, values and research collaboration. At the same time, however, research institutions and individual researchers must accept collective responsibility for security and be mindful of the national interest.

Know your collaborator

Key to accepting such collective responsibility is developing a ‘Know Your Collaborator’ culture throughout the research community. National grant-making agencies are key to harmonising the grant proposal process and standardising reporting requirements. These agencies include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy in the US, and the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia.

As a result of the recent security guidelines and investigations, US and Australian research institutions and individual researchers entering into collaborative arrangements or applying for research grant monies can expect to meet increasingly detailed notification requirements along with more detailed scrutiny of research collaboration relationships (especially contractual relationships) and grant applications.

Research institutions will also be required to have in place risk assessment frameworks and risk mitigation strategies in decision-making processes. While the Australian guidelines are voluntary, universities will be expected to fulfil increased responsibilities around governance, due diligence towards research collaborators and staff appointments, raising awareness about foreign interference risks on campus and strengthening cyber security.

Particular concerns about China are made explicit in the US subcommittee report; and implied throughout the Australian debate leading to the publication of the guidelines.

In both nations, researchers and research institutions can expect greater support for collaborations with institutions outside of China. For example, less than 10 days after the release of the Australian guidelines, Australia’s Minister for Education Tehan was in India, announcing new funding from the Australian government to support the establishment of a researcher hub in New Delhi where Australian academics and students can engage with Indian colleagues.

China’s wider influence

Research collaborations outside of mainland China geographically, of course, are not necessarily outside of Chinese involvement or influence. The expansion of Chinese intellectual property and investment interests along the Belt and Road Initiative is a fact of life that the rest of the world will need to work with to maximise their potential benefits, which are considerable, while controlling risks.

In Hong Kong, for example, Carrie Lam’s government has stepped up research collaborations with both the Chinese mainland and with other countries. In May 2018, China’s Vice Minister for Science and Technology, Huang Wei, announced that China’s national science research funds would be open to applications from Hong Kong-based research clusters.

US concerns have only served to highlight the importance of Hong Kong as a research and technology partner with China and as a Chinese gateway to research collaboration with other countries. Foreign research institutions with significant interests in Hong Kong include America’s MIT, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and RWTH Aachen University, and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

It is a fact of life that China is run by the Communist Party and that almost all major companies and research institutions with Chinese ownership will have Communist Party links. This does not mean that individual researchers or personnel are necessarily supporters of the party or its policies. Nor should it preclude engagement for the greater good.

Engagement with Chinese research institutions and individuals needs to be based on clear principles of academic freedom (of communication, movement and expression), university autonomy and university obligation to shape teaching and research agendas. The small portion of research where national security is primary can be quarantined.

Questions of political, civil, social, economic and cultural freedoms should be vigorously debated, but should not be allowed to muddy the waters of academic freedom and university autonomy.

Alice de Jonge is a senior lecturer in the department of business law and taxation at Monash Business School, Monash University, Australia.