An Academic Iron Curtain?

The Balkanisation of international research is not in Australia’s interest, argues Kim Carr

In these times of heightened anxiety about China’s global influence, Australia’s scientists and researchers all too often endure the smear that they are collaborating with a foreign power. The accusation, made by hawks within the defence and security establishments, conflates several things that are not the same: concern at the activity of international students on Australian campuses; the need to uphold quality assurance standards in higher education institutions; the need to protect our cybersecurity; and the importance of genuine international research collaboration. The hawks – and those in the media who uncritically report their remarks – ought to know that these are all different things. 

Yet the notion that we should fear research collaboration with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and that reputable scientists in Australia’s universities and research agencies are at least dupes, if not actively disloyal, is relentlessly put forward. In part, this reflects the fact that the neoliberals who in earlier decades pushed for the opening up of trade relations with the PRC by declaring it to be a ‘market economy’ have been mugged by reality. Blinded by their own ideological blinkers they assumed that PRC was becoming a Western-style economy, and that this would gradually but inevitably lead to it becoming a liberal democracy, too. It hasn’t happened.

That said, however, the hawks are being highly selective, indeed quite arbitrary, in their focus on the PRC. After all, it is not the only authoritarian state with a record of human rights abuses whose students visit this country and undertake research in PhD programs. Yet strangely, nothing is said about the students who come here from the Middle East or Africa. Apparently, it is only the PRC whose treatment of dissidents and minorities is cause for concern. Nor do the Sinophobes acknowledge that there is more than one state with the technological capacity to threaten Australia’s cybersecurity. Russia and the United States could all do so. It is a matter of record that even friendly nations sometimes do things that friends are not supposed to do, such as stealing our passports and the identities of our citizens. The factual record, however, is something that those intent on whipping up a new cold war against the PRC prefer to ignore. They certainly refuse to acknowledge the fundamental fact concerning Australia’s international research collaboration: that we have one of the most highly regulated defence trade export regimes in the world.

The Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 was introduced in response to concerns that it was too easy for other nations, and perhaps non-state actors, to obtain sensitive material from this country. The Act regulates the access to technologies placed on a Defence Strategic Goods List, which is maintained through regular exchanges between the Department of Defence, universities and industry. In its own documents, Defence has been quite clear, contrary to media reports, that it does not rely on self-assessment by universities and agencies to ensure compliance with Australia’s export controls. The Department is in regular contact with these institutions to ensure that academics and researchers are aware of Australia’s export controls and of any proliferation risks in sharing technology. The defence trade controls system applies to all exports of controlled technology, regardless of whether the exporter is a university, a government agency or from the private sector.

As evidence to Senate estimates hearings confirms, in the time that the system has been in force only one breach has been reported. That involved CSIRO and Pakistan, not the PRC. (CSIRO, it should be noted, is not negligent on security matters, or when it comes to protecting its own communications. The agency has told estimates hearings that it blocks approximately 500,000 attempts to hack into its IT systems each year.)

An independent review of the Defence Trade Controls Act has been conducted by Dr Vivienne Thom, a former Director-General of Intelligence and Security. In her report, submitted in October last year, Thom stated that she did not “support the broad approach implied by the recommendations” in a submission to the review by the Department of Defence. In the understated language of official reports, that is an emphatic rejection. Here was a senior government consultant, herself a member of the national security establishment, rejecting proposals for a tougher set of restrictions on the transfer of technology to foreign entities. The Department had recommended expanded powers for the Minister to prohibit technology transfers, an extensive permit system for those seeking to supply or transfer technology, and enhanced restrictions on so-called “dual-use” technologies, i.e. those that are not inherently military but which might have a military application.

Consider the implications of that last proposal. Those who talk about “dual-use” technologies typically argue that they are something new, because the traditional distinction between military and civilian technologies is disappearing in the digital age. This contention is, to say the least, historically uninformed. The naked flame has been with us for a very long time, and so have carving knives. These are not inherently military technologies, but it is not difficult to conceive of circumstances in which they could be used as weapons, or indeed, to cite situations in which they have been so used. The Defence Department’s recommendations, if accepted, would essentially have given the Department the right not only to block transfers of information and technology, but to intervene in most forms of intellectual collaboration between Australian researchers and their counterparts overseas.

The advancement of science depends on such collaboration, and the highly restrictive regime the DoD was proposing would, over time, have substantially reduced Australia’s access to new knowledge and to the new technologies that are transforming our world. The universities and research agencies that submitted to the Thoms review recognised that implication in the Department’s proposals and argued strongly against them. Universities Australia commented that the proposals “threaten investment in Australian research and development, making it more difficult to build new industries (including a defence industry), or achieve the ambitions of government initiatives such as the Global Innovation Strategy”. The Academy of Science submitted that “the Defence recommendations amount to the unilateral ability to prohibit, control or regulate any technology, irrespective of its status as a listed technology on the Defence Strategic Goods List, and the ability to suppress publication of any given research activity: “Such a regime would create enormous uncertainty, with no ability to determine whether a technology would be allowed to be developed, deployed, communicated or exported. This environment would not be conducive to investment in high quality research”.

The Academy’s comments neatly exposed the irony in the Defence proposals: in the pursuit of enhanced security for Australia, the Department was effectively seeking to impose a regulatory regime of the kind that authoritarian states typically rely upon, and which democracies like Australia have historically condemned as inimical to the spirit of free inquiry. That kind of creeping authoritarianism, of course, is what happens in cold wars, and the surest sign that we are embroiled in a new cold war against the PRC is the demand for tougher restrictions on the release of “sensitive information”.

The demands have not ceased, despite Dr Thom’s rejection of the Defence proposals. In its campaign to shackle international research collaboration, the Department’s hawks appear to be using proxies, including right-wing thinktanks, who also submitted to the Thom review in support of tougher regulation, and often get quoted in the mainstream media, conjuring up some disastrous outcome from the fact that Chinese graduate students sometimes come to Australia to undertake their doctoral research. The media stories have not cited any evidence of real, or even likely, security breaches from this kind of international exchange, just as there has been no reporting of any security breaches at Australian universities or science agencies under the existing defence trade controls regime. It is all conjecture, bordering on fantasy. But that has not stopped ideologues from indulging in it – which, of course, is another feature of cold wars. This latest cold war is an unusual one, because even the cold warriors cannot dispute the fact that the PRC is absolutely indispensable to Australia’s economic prosperity.

In the previous cold war, between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union, the Soviets were never serious challengers to the global economic dominance of the US. But in the new cold war, it is the PRC’s economic rivalry with the US that is shifting the geopolitical balance. And, as we know, that places Australia in a delicate position because the PRC is by far our most important trading partner while the US remains our principal strategic partner. So Australia’s cold war warriors concede the importance of bilateral trade with the PRC, and, at least in principle, do not oppose Chinese investment in Australia (however ambivalent they may feel about it). But they remain suspicious of – and are often openly hostile to – intellectual cooperation and exchanges that would benefit both countries. The problem is not only that their attitude is contradictory. The narrow frame through which they view research collaboration ignores the reality that science is a global enterprise, in which Australia must participate if it is fully to reap the rewards of its own scientists’ work.

Australian science, measured by citations, has a global market share of about 3 per cent. To punch above their weight, our scientists must collaborate with their colleagues in other countries, especially in the US, Europe, India and China. Australia simply does not have the scale of physical and human capital, nor a sufficiently large domestic market, to engage at the international frontiers of technology by itself. This country spends $20-25 billion a year on research and development (R&D), compared with about $500 billion each by both China and the US. Slightly more than half of our R&D spend is by business, but most of that is on applications of existing knowledge, not the creation of new knowledge. Universities are the main institutions in Australia engaged in the discovery of new knowledge and, measured by the number of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, collaboration between Australian and Chinese researchers is a rapidly growing part of that activity of discovery. In 1998 only one per cent of Australian peer-reviewed journal articles included a co-author affiliated with a Chinese institution. By 2018 the proportion had risen to 15 per cent, and if the existing growth rates continue this year the PRC will overtake the US to become our leading international collaborator. That does not mean we are de-coupling from the US in research collaboration, because our collaborations with the PRC and the US are different but highly complementary. Collaboration with the PRC is oriented towards the physical sciences and engineering, whereas with the US it tends to be oriented towards the life sciences. It should also be noted that much of our research collaboration with the PRC is in support of various forms of humanitarian assistance; if we turn away from that, it will be more difficult to express our concerns at human rights abuses in China.

All of this means that our status as a high-income society will increasingly depend on remaining open to international transfers of new technologies and to research collaboration with international partners. The existing level of collaboration, be it with the PRC, the US or even Europe (our other major research partner) cannot be unwound without doing significant damage to the economic and social fabric of the nation. Yet the attacks on research collaboration with the PRC have not ceased, and there are signs that the government is heeding the urgings of the cold war warriors. Last month, the federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, announced that the Government was establishing a “University Foreign Interference Taskforce” to provide “better protection for universities” against foreign interference. The Minister said that the taskforce would bring together universities and “Australian Government agencies” to work together to develop a set of “best practice guidelines to support and environment of trust and to guide decision-making, based on potential risks, so that Australian universities can continue to produce world-class research”. The announcement was as noteworthy for what it did not say, or for what it merely implied, as for what it actually said.

Why is it apparently assumed that Australian universities are not already following “world’s best practice”? (To repeat: the Defence Trade Controls Act already enforces a tougher regulatory regime than that which applies in the US.) Why is it also assumed that this taskforce will support “an environment of trust”? The very creation of the committee implies that “Australian Government agencies” do not trust the commitment of universities to national security? And, why should it be expected that the operation of such a taskforce will ensure that Australian universities can continue to conduct world-class research? With “Australian Government agencies” looking over their shoulders all the time, researchers are more likely to be inhibited and frustrated than to be able to do the work they need to do. Australia’s vice-chancellors and the directors of research agencies, dependent on the flow of public funds to keep their institutions functioning, are in a difficult position. To push back against the new demands for oversight of Australian researchers by “non-expert policy analysts” is to jeopardise the resources on which those researchers rely for what they do every day. Simply to comply with those demands, however, is to risk the unravelling of what world-class scientists and researchers have achieved. No government that is committed to the prosperity of this country should put academic and research leaders in such a position. 

This was first published in The Tocsin on Monday, 14 October 2019.


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