Academic spy cases: No room for simplistic conclusions

Two recent cases of espionage involving foreign academics in Norwegian universities highlight the need for a deeper discussion about what the proper national responses should be, according to an internationalisation expert.

In September, a former tenured professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) went on trial for a string of charges including violation of the new regulations on the export of scientific knowledge and a breach of the Iran sanctions after he gave four guest Iranian researchers access to advanced university laboratory equipment.

Late last month, a researcher believed to be a Russian spy was arrested by Norway’s security agency PST while on his way to work at the University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway.

In addition to security concerns, the two cases have also raised questions about the process of international recruitment to PhD and postdoctoral positions at Nordic universities.

According to Professor Tommy Shih, associate professor of marketing at Lund University in Sweden, it is desirable, for a small country such as Norway, to have an open academic system that facilitates incoming and outgoing students and researchers.

“It is difficult for a small country to develop its scientific capabilities if too heavy-handed mobility restrictions are implemented. While espionage is a serious issue, if proven to be true, there still needs to be a discussion about what the proper responses should be,” said Shih, who is the co-author of Responsible Internationalisation: Guidelines for reflection on international academic collaboration, produced in 2020 by the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) in collaboration with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Karolinska Institute and Lund University.

“Right now, there are different logics coming into play – on the one hand, the academic freedom and institutional autonomy aspects of research; on the other hand, the hardening geopolitical landscape and increased focus on national security,” Shih told University World News in an email.

“Too much focus on either one will lead to simplistic conclusions that will in turn impact the ability to meaningfully manage the portfolio of different goals (eg, research security, academic freedom, and collegiality) research institutions need to consider.”

Shih said work with responsible internationalisation has “focused on developing tools and scenarios that aid researchers and university leaders to make research decisions in an increasingly conflicted research environment”.

International graduates

Calls for greater emphasis on security come against the backdrop of significant increases in international graduates in all Nordic countries over the last decade, particularly in STEM fields and ICT.

According to official figures, in 2021, 425 out of 1,700 Finnish PhD graduates were foreign (25%). Additionally, 1,260 out of 2,670 in Sweden (47%), 700 out of 1,538 in Norway (46%), and approximately 40% of those graduating in Denmark (1,889) were foreign citizens.

As reported by University World News, the high number of international citizens being recruited to doctoral and postdoctoral positions in Norway has been the subject of intense debate for a number of years. In 2021, another round of debate on the topic was initiated by researcher Cecilie Hellestveit who was quoted by Aftenposten.

“I am not against international researchers in Norway. And I am not for only having foreign researchers in Norway. But when not one of the PhD students in cryptology in Norway is a Norwegian citizen, and Norway has great difficulties in finding qualified personnel that can receive security clearance for working with advanced cryptology in the secret police, then internationalisation has been taken too far in his field; that is my point,” she said.

Norwegian Minister of Higher Education and Research Ola Borten Moe has since called upon universities to find ways to recruit more Norwegians for doctoral training, especially in STEM fields, precisely because of the problem raised by Hellesveit: international graduates cannot be vetted for service in government because of the need for security clearance by the authorities.

Borten Moe noted that in PhD training in cryptology there are almost no Norwegian PhD students and universities were not producing candidates to fill the demand for such skills.

Responsibility for screening

Where the responsibility lies for screening international citizens seeking positions in Nordic universities is not entirely clear.

According to the lawyer defending the former NTNU professor, the university rather than the individual academic shoulders the burden.

“If anyone should be punished in this case, it is the NTNU,” said defence attorney Olle Nohlin during a hearing in Oslo on 29 September. “Should the PST [the secret police] have looked into other explanations in this case, for instance all the mess that has been found in the working routines of the laboratory in question?” he asked.

Questions have been raised about how the researcher in Tromsø, who was believed to be Russian, was able to secure a research fellowship at the University of Tromsø.

Prosecutor Thomas Blom on 28 October named the man as Mikhail Mikushin, but qualified that by saying Norway’s domestic security agency was “not positively sure of his identity, but we are quite certain that he is not Brazilian”, The Guardian reported. Investigative website Bellingcat suggested that Mikushin is a colonel in Russian military intelligence agency GRU.

The Norwegian Broadcasting company NRK reported that he studied at the Taylor University College in Malaysia in 2011 and earned a masters degree in military, security and strategic studies at the University of Calgary in Canada in 2018.

However, it has also emerged that the man had applied for a guest research fellowship at the Nord University in Bodø before applying to Tromsø and that Nord University had, in fact, rejected his application due to his lack of published scientific papers.

Furthermore, the university was of the view that his masters degree from Canada disqualified him for a fellowship because it was not a research-based degree.

In the wake of these two cases, chair of the law committee in parliament and former minister of justice Per-Willy Amundsen told Khrono that the People’s Party was the only party expressing scepticism about increasing research collaboration with Russia, China and Iran.

“I feel that the higher education institutions are uncritical about these issues and are giving higher priority to research collaboration than the security of the country,” he said.

To the Tromsø newspaper, Nordlys, he said universities in particular had been naive. “I want the PST and the NSM [National Security Agency] to make recommendations on how to improve security in higher education institutions.

“But you might ask what value a background check has when ‘researchers’ from China and Russia are coming here. If they are trained agents, they will nevertheless have a background that is waterproof,” he said.

Erring on the side of caution

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told NRK he will recommend more control over international guest researchers.

“We have regulations listing countries we do not have collaboration with, so you have to be especially alert [when entering into collaboration]. But in general, this case demonstrates that being on the alert and having extensive controls are wise,” Støre told NRK.

Ola Kaldager, former head of the security police E-14, told NRK that universities are attractive arenas for foreign secret police and it was easy to conduct intelligence activities at universities.

“These are large milieus where everyone can have their opinions. There are many interesting things you can start to look into. You can gather much information that you can build on,” he said.

Kaldager said the University of Tromsø had many projects dealing with Norwegian interests in the Arctic, and in marine technology where Norway is a world leader.

“Twenty years of Norwegian naivety has made it easy for Russians, in general, to do these kinds of activities in Norway,” he told NRK.

Rector of the University of Tromsø, Professor Dag Rune Olsen, told Universitetsavisa on 28 October he was concerned that the Russian espionage case would “harm” the university.

“It is not a case where data has been stolen or information gathered that can destroy our research, but what is challenging for us and that can impact our research negatively is that the legitimacy of our research milieus can be undermined,” Olsen said.

In an editorial in response to Olsen on 5 November, Nordlys accused the rector of trying to “tone down” the university’s responsibility for background checks.

“He should not do that. Because what he does is to establish a praxis that is a disclaimer. A huge responsibility is on the higher education institution itself,” the editorial said.

Closer cooperation

Concerns over espionage in academia appear, in some cases, to be leading to more cooperation between security police and universities in the region.

In the spring of 2022, for example, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) and the Ministry of Higher Education and Science made recommendations on how staff at research institutes can prevent and respond to foreign interference and espionage.

“Denmark benefits from most international research cooperation. However, some foreign nations illegally procure knowledge, technology and products that Denmark is to live off in the long term or that may have an adverse effect in terms of security policy,” notes a brochure which has been produced to provide ‘tips’ on foreign interference and espionage for researchers and other staff.

Other sections in the brochure, titled Is Your Research at Risk? include “We need to be better prepared”, “The threat is real”, “Significant consequences”, “How they collect your research” and “Eight tips to improve your security”.

In May 2022 an article in Universitetsläraren, the magazine of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), highlighted an increase in exposure to foreign intelligence gathering at Swedish universities and named Russia, China and Iran as the biggest threats according to SÄPO, the Swedish Security Service.

The value of openness

Nils Christian Stenseth, biology professor and director of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo, told University World News that Norway needed to attract the best students and postdocs, be it from Norway or abroad to “develop and maintain good research environments”.

“It is the job of PST and other authorities to check the background of those seeking to work with us. This is not a job for scientists (professors and the like). Our job is to check the academic qualifications.”

Bjørn Haugstad, director of organisation and infrastructure at NTNU and former secretary of state at the Ministry of Education and Research, said secrecy and universities are not compatible.

“Openness, sharing of knowledge and international collaboration [is what] universities have been doing for hundreds of years. At the same time, we recognise that some of the research we perform may be misused, and we do not want to contribute to this,” he told University World News.

Professor Sylvia Schwaag Serger, a former director of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, and now a member of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions’ advisory group for global relations, said measures such as the blacklisting of countries and research areas and the vetting of academics from certain countries was often an “insufficient, blunt and at times dangerously simplistic instrument” of risk management.

“What should universities screen people for: ties to military institutions? Links to the state? Loyalty to, or likelihood of being weaponised by, their authoritarian governments? The challenge is that we are dealing with countries – some of which are now global powerhouses in research and innovation – where the lines between military and civilian spheres of technology are blurred and where the state is increasingly omnipresent in all parts of society including academia.”

Serger, who is based in the department of economic history at Lund University, said the central question for Nordic academia today is how it continues to advance knowledge and contributes to a “better world through working with the best and brightest and through accessing relevant sources of knowledge” while also managing risks in a “proactive, enlightened and responsible fashion”.

She said the recent OECD report titled Integrity and Security in the Global Research Ecosystem provided valuable analysis and suggestions on the topic.

According to Serger, universities are sometimes “more concerned and driven by fear of bad press and reputational damage in a politically charged climate” than with finding ways to strengthen their ability to “carry out, promote and defend responsible international scientific engagement and collaboration”.

“To this end, universities should create joint fora which gather relevant expertise (from academia but also government agencies) and which can serve as a platform for discussion, exchange, advice and support on concrete cases and challenges with regard to internationalisation of higher education in an increasingly complex geopolitical context.

“Governments (eg, research and innovation agencies) could create national contact points that researchers and universities could turn to for information and advice,” she said.