Research security rules: Is university autonomy at risk?

The Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science published a report on 25 May which calls for a “paradigm shift” in the Danish approach to international research and innovation and offers practical guidelines for Danish educational and research institutions to “reduce risks and increase the potential for benefits in international research and innovation collaboration”.

The Danish measures are part of broader efforts by Nordic countries to combat intellectual espionage and information misuse in international research collaborations. While cooperation with countries such as China and Russia tends to be foregrounded as current security threats, most of the measures are designed to be applied more generally.

“Danish universities shall in the future follow a set of guidelines when collaborating with international partners to prevent [a situation in which] international researchers in reality are used for espionage or theft of technology for military use,” the report said.

The guidelines are country neutral, but the report focuses, among other things, on a tighter approach to cooperation with China, according to a press release marking the report’s launch.

The report is the product of an 11-member committee (known as the Committee on Guidelines for International Research and Innovation Collaboration or URIS) established by the minister of higher education and science in 2020. It is composed of leaders from Danish universities and professional university colleges and from governmental research funding agencies, and is chaired by a member of the ministry.

According to “facts” listed in the press release, various reports – the Danish Defence Intelligence Service's “Vision 2021”, the Centre for Cyber Security's “Cyber threat to Denmark 2021” and the Danish Security and Intelligence Service's “Assessment of the espionage threat to Denmark 2022” – suggest that both Russia and China's civil-military integration pose a risk of military or unethical use of knowledge and technology, including use in violation of human rights.

A paradigm shift

Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen said at the launch of the URIS report that its conclusions would lead to “enormous changes and to a paradigm shift” and said he was “prepared to take wider actions” if necessary.

“Universities must be much more critical when collaborating with other countries, for instance with China. Therefore, we are now tightening the grip. There are several countries where the development is very worrying and where there is a high risk that Danish researchers can contribute to the building up of military capacity or to the breaking of human rights,” he said.

University leaders would need to know the new guidelines “by heart”, he added.

“This is necessary for our security and competitive level and for the basic values and thrust of Danish research. I am going to monitor the developments closely,” Petersen said.

The URIS report sets out a surveillance landscape marked by a greater focus on: ethical, economic and security-related risks; organisational setup and procedures for handling risk; and greater sharing of experiences across governmental authorities and higher education institutions in Denmark.

The report proposes nine concrete actions in three categories: identify and protect your critical research; know your collaborative partners; and protect your institution, staff and students.

A question of balance – Sweden

Earlier in May, it was reported by Universitetsläraren, the magazine of the Swedish association of university teachers and researchers, that the Swedish Security Service registered an increase in foreign espionage directed at Swedish higher institutions in its 2021 annual report, with Russia, China and Iran being named as “the greatest threats”.

The report goes on to say that “the Chinese government is using Chinese citizens at Swedish colleges and universities with the objective to gather technology and knowledge that is strengthening the Chinese military capacity”.

Lars Alberius, senior officer for the Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF), told University World News the association had established a network of security officers at universities and colleges.

He said an expert SUHF group for housing has also been mandated to work on security issues. The network provides support to higher education institutions to become more aware of security issues and put preventative measures in place.

Agneta Bladh, former secretary of state at the Ministry of Education and Science and current chair of the Swedish Research Council who headed the government’s internationalisation inquiry in 2018, said Swedish universities, especially those with engineering faculties, have been aware of security issues “for some years” now as a result of contacts from the Swedish Security Service.

“Two years ago, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education issued a report called Responsible Internationalisation, which offered a basis for reflection and discussion of strategic decisions on internationalisation,” Bladh told University World News.

“There are no guidelines in this report. It is up to the higher education institutions themselves or national agencies to formulate these. Up to now, the Swedish approach seems to have been to trust the universities and funding agencies to handle these difficult issues.”

Bladh said research collaboration today covers a much broader set of countries and a “lack of awareness about both ethical and security issues” had become evident among both researchers and university leadership.

“Therefore, internationalisation is not just for individual researchers, but a strategic consideration for higher education institutions,” she said.

Because the aim of research collaboration was to increase quality and broaden perspectives, less collaboration would lead to “less interesting” research.

“How to balance this against security? Added to these concerns is a growing attitude among researchers to neglect collaboration with researchers from non-democratic countries. All this will contribute to a polarised world, when science traditionally has contributed to understanding between countries,” Bladh said.

Why China? A Finnish view

In Finland, guidelines for academic cooperation with China were published in December last year by the Ministry of Education and Culture – based on advice from the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO).

Administrative head of Helsinki University Esa Hämäläinen said that in addition to being aware of the national recommendations, the university had introduced a risk assessment procedure governing collaborations with new partners.

“This is not China-specific at all,” Hämäläinen told University World News. “Each research project is unique and we do not want to prevent any valuable and important research without careful evaluation.

“Rather we want to help our deans and principal investigators to be aware of risks that are not directly related to academic research (eg political, economic, social, legal, reputational). If considerable risks are found, we hope to find ways to mitigate them.”

Hämäläinen said that because collaboration “sometimes bears high risks for the whole university”, the institution had appointed a high-level ethical advisory board to give advice on issues to the university leadership.

SUPO communication officer Karoliina Romanoff told University World News the service welcomed the publication by the Ministry of Education and Culture of recommendations for Finnish universities on what to consider when collaborating or cooperating with China and Chinese academic institutions.

“Finland has, in general, a lot of expertise that China is interested in. China is ready to acquire this know-how by a variety of means – including intelligence.

“Many Chinese universities work closely with the Chinese defence industry, armed forces and security authorities. Scientific cooperation could, at worst, lead to a situation where research is used without the knowledge of a Finnish university, for example, for military purposes in China, or the research results could facilitate human rights violations in China.

“There are also risks associated with research ethics issues, academic freedom, financial links of higher education institutions and censorship," Romanoff continued.

“In China, research is not free, but the Communist Party is able to steer international research cooperation between Chinese researchers through extensive state funding. It makes it difficult for researchers to move freely and obliges them to return to China after their exchange programme (stay) abroad.

“In the world of research, international cooperation is absolutely essential but potential risks must be identified,” she said.

The aim of the Finnish guidelines is to raise awareness of the potential challenges related to cooperation with China, Mari-Anna Suurmunne, a senior specialist in education and science at Finland's embassy in Beijing told the Finnish broadcasting corporation (YLE) last year.

“The starting point is better and more informed cooperation,” she said, adding that it has to be borne in mind that China's social system and values differ from those in Europe. Competition for the top spot in the world of science may take place under a different set of rules.

“… China is aiming to become the world leader in sciences by the middle of the century. The country has invested increasing amounts in research and education in recent years, and this is clearly evident.

“According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, the country spent CNY1.35 trillion (US$202 billion) on higher education in 2019. According to the exchange rate at that time, the sum totalled €170 billion. By comparison, Finland's entire state budget that year was €55.5 billion,” YLE reported.

A licence to export knowledge – Norway

In 2021, the Norwegian government proposed a regulation that will force universities to apply for an export licence if they want to export knowledge produced in Norway to other countries. Since then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sent out an invitation for comment (closing 22 June 2022).

The proposed new legislation will monitor the export of defence material, multiple-use goods, technology and services. 'Knowledge transfer' is regarded as all forms of sharing of knowledge of goods and services and the transfer of knowledge that can be used to develop a country’s military capacity.

While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not disclosed the full list of countries that might be hit by the new regulations, Norway currently has an embargo on cooperation with: Afghanistan (Taliban), Al Qaida/ISIL, Myanmar, Burundi, Darfur province in the Sudan (certain groups), Guinea, Belarus, Iraq, Iran, Yemen (directed towards certain persons), Libya, Mali, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Central African Republic, Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine (certain persons), Tunis, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Academic freedom vs political control

Professor Jens Oddershede, former rector of the University of Southern Denmark and former chair of peak body Universities Denmark, told University World News it was “always a good idea” to know who you are collaborating with and to have “potential misuse” of knowledge in mind.

“But do we need government to tell us that?” he asked.

“Isn’t that common knowledge and is that a particular problem when collaborating with Chinese scientists? I can think of many other scientists from other countries that I would not care to share information with,” he said.

“Sharing knowledge is the cornerstone of science … Maybe right now we need to be more careful when collaborating with scientists from some countries, including for instance the People’s Republic of China and Russia.

“However, if we take this approach too far it will harm ourselves as much as it will harm them. Scientists also carry a responsibility for an open world.”

Professor Hans de Wit, professor emeritus and distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, said there was “no easy answer” to the challenges presented by security concerns and academic collaboration.

The current attention given by Scandinavia to national security and concerns about research collaboration with China were not unique, he noted.

“Other European countries, the European Commission, but also Australia, the United States and Canada are worried about the risks of open science in the new geopolitical context universities have to operate.

“They also have written reports, taken actions, and set restrictions on academic cooperation with China and, after the invasion of Ukraine, with Russia," De Wit said.

“There is no easy answer to these challenges. It would be naive to ignore the high risks of the control by dictatorial systems on their sciences and on academic cooperation, while at the same time science can only prosper by open academic collaboration.

“Being on the alert for potential risks of misuse of such collaboration while at the same time keeping the channels for academic cooperation open, requires a balanced approach between the different stakeholders: governments, funding agencies, institutions and researchers.

“A one-sided top-down policy of restrictions would be counterproductive,” he said.

President of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, told University World News that the issue concerned the autonomy of universities and trust.

Universities "have to have the competence needed to navigate responsively in a geopolitically turbulent world”, he said.

“It is therefore important that universities continuously are strengthening their competence within this area – as we do in Sweden through the establishment of an international expert group that will be able to give universities advice on responsible internationalisation.”

He said the alternative – that international collaboration shall be governed at a distance by the politicians – could “quickly become a serious challenge for institutional autonomy and academic freedom”.

Ottersen said the statements of the Danish minister on the release of the URIS report exude “distrust of universities and of their competence when it comes to responsible internationalisation”.

He said with distrust comes a “risk of political overreach and infringements on academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.

It should be remembered, Ottersen said, that universities have centuries of experience in sustaining academic collaborations under difficult conditions, in times of conflicts and geopolitical tensions.

“The myriad of international collaborations cannot be governed from above but must be safely handled from within.”

Professor Maja Horst, head of the division for responsible innovation and design at the Technical University of Denmark, chair of the Independent Research Fund Denmark and a member of the URIS Committee, was asked if she had heard anything in the discussions that surprised her.

“Yes, I have found it surprising to hear some of these stories. When thinking about it, I must admit it should not be a surprise, but I guess we have been assuming that all researchers play by the same rules. This is evidently not the case. But it is important to recognise that we find problems with scientific integrity in all countries,” she told University World News.

“I think we all have to acknowledge that the world is changing and that we need to think critically about who we are collaborating with in science. While I do believe that international collaboration is crucial for small knowledge intensive economies like the Scandinavian countries, we also need to take the stories about misuse seriously.

“However, I think it is important that we do not build a general culture of mistrust. Rather the answer is always to critically consider the interests and motivations of your partners but keep an open mind and a willingness to collaborate,” Horst concluded.