Security risks: How to keep the global science system open

In recent years, the security risks associated with international research collaborations have received increasing attention, to the detriment of the research community. Proactive state efforts to fight academic espionage or the nefarious intentions of other state powers have been particularly obvious in countries such as Australia and the United States.

However, the political discourse is also changing in some of the countries with the greatest academic freedom in the world. In the Nordic countries, for example, there has lately been increased scrutiny of international research collaborations, especially those involving researchers in China, Russia and Iran.

Nordic politicians are becoming more vocal about protecting their national interests. In 2021, the Norwegian government proposed a bill which would require universities to apply for export control licences before exporting knowledge. However, stricter securitisation of research does not benefit the overall scientific endeavour.

Taking the dual-use aspects of research into account – that is, research that can be used for both civilian and military applications – is a sound practice because of existing national legislation and export controls. Moreover, there is sometimes an actual risk of directly contributing to the development of weapons in some research projects (whether deliberately or not), even if there are no export controls. This also needs to be considered by the researcher.

Nonetheless, a more thorough understanding of what constitutes due diligence on dual use, as well as an awareness of how proactive efforts to manage the way in which such issues impact research at a general level, is needed.

The danger of unclear definitions

Promoting securitisation based on vague, sweeping examples or unclear definitions and identified risks does not constitute a meaningful response.

For example, in its annual report the Swedish Security Service states that “actions by authoritarian states have become increasingly offensive. They use any means to achieve their goals. They are aggressive and use whatever resources they have at their disposal. The threat is further affected by the fact that authoritarian states have increased their cooperation in order to strengthen their own countries”.

In the light of that statement one wonders what actions research actors could undertake without risking entire countries and scientific disciplines being disqualified.

While research should sometimes be restricted or regulated for security reasons and ethics dumping or human rights violations should be avoided, securitisation poses a general challenge since its impact can be quite blunt. Increased securitisation and a focus on risk management tend to adversely impact research. For example, in the United States the legislative efforts and directives codified in the Science and Chips Act, NSPM-33, as well as the China Initiative have inhibited US-Chinese research collaborations, affecting both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones.

In reality, limiting science collaboration is by no means easy to achieve, but there are fears that harsh legislation or sanctions can have an impact (as has been seen in the case of Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine).

The premise of research cooperation

Is the main goal of securitisation to reduce civil-military fusion against a backdrop of fears of falling national competitiveness and a perceived lack of reciprocity in collaborations, or is it a mere display of political forcefulness? Are securitisation decisions based on an understanding of how science works and are researchers themselves acting prudently?

Irrespective of the answers to these questions, if solutions are to be implemented to build more secure, excellent, reciprocal and responsible international research relationships, they need to take into consideration the underlying premises of international research cooperation.

Research collaborations happen because there is a potential gain for researchers on both sides, and thus also for the organisations they work for. The most meaningful collaborations occur when there is a mutual exchange. This also creates opportunities for long-term planning where institutional and organisational impact is sometimes considered.

Moreover, researchers identify with their professional disciplines and peers rather than their nationality. Although it is true that researchers also identify as citizens of particular countries, they generally see themselves as international in their professional identity if we look at collaboration patterns, with research collaborations taking place first and foremost for the benefit of the research project and the individual researcher.

What’s more, knowledge transfer usually doesn’t happen in secrecy. Most of the knowledge created through research is openly accessible through publications or disseminated in academic meetings such as conferences.

For the most part, international collaborations are relatively uncomplicated from a dual-use or ethical dumping perspective. Moreover, technological development and innovation are non-linear processes in time and space. It is difficult and sometimes almost impossible to predict what uses and functions fundamental research will have in the future.

Although an open system is the best solution for scientific development, addressing global challenges and building national well-being, more thoughtfulness and better professional judgement are required from several groups in order for the global science system to have a chance to remain somewhat open.

These groups include:

The research community

Researchers are the specialists when it comes to their subject areas and, therefore, are well positioned to assess risks related to their field, but in general they need a better understanding of a broader portfolio of considerations that impact their work, including geopolitics.

It is important to have a forum for discussion about how existing handrails or guidelines concerning research security, responsible internationalisation and research integrity work in tandem and how they are used in international projects.

University managements, academies and other professional networks play an important role in the development of routines and good practice by signposting useful information and offering opportunities for dialogue and training.

Politicians and government

Government officials play a role in clarifying the various rules and expectations for the research sector. However, they also need to be better informed on the different forms that research collaborations take, the ways in which they create value and the trade-offs created by taking risks.

Clearer statements about the challenges are often needed. Further dialogue between researchers and political groups is required to improve understanding at political and government level of how international research collaborations are initiated and conducted in practice.

Politicians also need to better understand the implications of various measures and inform themselves about whether the measures proposed meaningfully address the problems they are designed to solve.

Research funders

Research funders also have an important role to play. Funders can make demands through the different funding mechanisms. However, there is some concern on the part of research funders about the effects of increased scrutiny on the freedom of research.

In reality, funders already want evidence of reflection on aspects such as integrity as part of the merit review. Further, requiring stringent reflection on grey area issues in international research collaborations would be a good idea and would strengthen the quality and integrity of research.

Systematising such reflexive practices, which research funders are able to do, could reduce the risks inherent in international collaborations due to differences in legislation, incentive structures and political or cultural systems.

Tommy Shih is an associate professor at Lund University, Sweden.