Universities say new rules will hurt international research

Higher education institutions in Norway have formally expressed concerns about the government’s proposed knowledge export control measures which they believe will threaten academic freedom, isolate the country’s research programme and have a negative impact on the internationalisation of higher education and research.

In a response to the ministry of foreign affairs’ call in late March for comments to its proposal for new regulatory controls around the exportation of knowledge, the Norwegian Council of Universities (UHR) said that, while the council appreciates the need for a change in the export control regulation, the draft proposal gives too much weight to national security at the expense of academic freedom and, in fact, conflicts with existing university law.

The UHR represents 32 universities, university colleges and private universities. Its response was among another 34 that came from universities, research institutes and other stakeholders to the proposal.

“The proposal conflicts with the university law [Law on universities and university colleges] (Para 1.1 & 1.5). In addition to academic freedom, the proposal challenges other core knowledge-political goals: international cooperation and open research,” the UHR statement says.

The UHR said that, for a research-intensive country such as Norway, international cooperation was of crucial importance.

Cooperation as an explicit goal

“Such cooperation has been an explicit goal for increasing innovation capacity and the competitive position [of Norway]; improved quality of Norwegian research, access to projects, networks, infrastructure and markets.”

The UHR warned against introducing stronger regulations in Norway compared with other countries, particularly those in the European Union.

“If we have stronger rules in Norway compared to others this will weaken Norwegian research milieus within broad and important research areas,” it said.

It also warned about a “Western” bias which is evident in the government’s implicit belief that research is generally more advanced in the West, including Norway, compared with the rest of the world.

“The regulation proposals, furthermore, implicitly presuppose that Norway and ‘Western countries’ are ahead of other countries in knowledge and technology development. This is no longer correct in all areas. In some research fields, non-democratic countries are as advanced in research and competence … This is a premise that is not covered in the proposal.”

Onerous complexity

The Norwegian Society of Graduate Technical and Scientific Professionals (Tekna), said many of its 95,000 members were worried about the complexity of the proposed changes, which might make it possible for individuals to inadvertently fall foul of the regulations.

“A combination of deep knowledge in an academic field and a wide knowledge of the export control regulations are needed to find out whether something might be included in the lists of goods under the regulations or the ‘catch-all’ definition,” Tekna said in a statement.

The society said it was troubled by the harsh punishment for employees found to be breaking the export control regulations.

“Point 4.1.2 on punishment states: ‘negligent violation will be punished by fees or prison up to two years’ and ‘that it is the organisation that is legally responsible to apply for the permission for knowledge export that takes place on behalf of the organisation, and which, hence, can be punished if the necessary licences have not been applied for’.

According to Tekna, one of their members, the University of Stavanger, also expressed a concern that the new regulations would lead to additional delays from the authorities in connection with international recruitment of skilled staff.

National threat assessment

Fears of illegal knowledge transfer from Norway were fuelled when the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) released its National Threat Assessment for 2021 in which it warned that the country needs to be prepared for “attempts by foreign intelligence services to influence public opinion and political debate in Norway in the coming year”.

There would also be attempts by certain states “to obtain Norwegian technology that they are not permitted to purchase under export control regulations or because of Western sanctions”, the report said.

The report specifically mentioned unlawful attempts to “transfer knowledge from Norwegian research and education institutions”, saying the “greatest threats” would come from Russia, China and Pakistan.

“In countries that pose the greatest threats, there are usually close ties between civil and military research programmes. Research stays in other countries are used to obtain knowledge that can be applied to the development of weapons programmes,” the report notes.

“Researchers may be pressured both during and after their stay in Norway to disclose their knowledge for use in development programmes for weapons systems.”

In 2022, the PST made specific reference to the export control regulations when it warned that foreign states have “a strong interest in exploiting the advantages” of Norway’s research and said it is aware of “offers of lucrative financial deals” being made to researchers who possess “cutting-edge” expertise.

“Such incentives can lead to sensitive information, knowledge and technology falling into the hands of the foreign actor,” it said, listing the following fields as being of particular interest to foreign states: metallurgy, nanotechnology, cyber security, cryptography, robotics and autonomics, molecular biology, chemistry, micro-electro-mechanical systems, acoustics and nuclear physics.

Academic voices

Individual academics have also expressed their concerns about the proposal. On 13 July 2022, The Rector of the University of Oslo professor Svein Stølen told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten in an article headlined: ‘The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to take control over scientists’ ideas – Universities react’ (translated), that the ministry of foreign affairs wants to stop sharing Norwegian research with other countries.

He is quoted as saying that such a move might lead to Norwegian research becoming isolated or falling “out of play” (direct translation).

For further comment, University World News approached professor emeritus of comparative politics Stein Ugelvik Larsen who is an expert on social science methodology and autocratic and fascist regimes, having edited three major international volumes on the subject, among them Who were the fascists? Social Roots of European Fascism.

Larsen has also collaborated for more than three decades with Russian colleagues, notably at Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Chinese colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

When asked if he thinks that the foreign affairs strategy would harm international collaboration, he said: “There is a huge difference between ‘stealing’ results from projects which enjoy a general protection via commercial patents or research ordered directly from a private firm or public organisation and the general political control of research by some public or political authority.

“The last type of control is dictatorial control, while the first is general protection of findings before proper publication.”

Political parties weigh in

Meanwhile, since the publication of the institutional responses to the proposal, opposition parties the Green Party (Miljøpartiet De Grønne) and Liberal Party (Venstre) have insisted that the issue is important enough to be debated in parliament.

Support for such a move has also come from the Progress Party, with Himanshu Gulati, a Progress Party MP and member of the education and research committee in parliament, telling Khrono he would ask the minister over the summer holiday break why the question has not been sent to parliament, after which he would consider whether or not to support the motion to have the issue considered at that level.