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Group of Eight universities concede to ASIO, restrict vital research engagement with China

by Brian Toohey | Apr 6, 2021 | Economy & Markets

China is provoking every country in its region. But that is no reason to cut off all contact, including scientific engagement, especially if we want to avoid war. Brian Toohey investigates another sphere in which academic freedom is being restricted by government.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, aided and abetted by the nation’s universities, is attacking core scholarly values that stress the importance of sharing research without government censorship.

The “Group of Eight”, the body that represents the leading research universities, made a contradictory submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) last December.

The submission begins by boasting that the Go8 has a beneficial working relationship with Australia’s security agencies and that it was instrumental in implementing the University Foreign Interference Taskforce guidelines. These are seen as an “exemplar by the Five Eyes Plus group of nations and their leading research-intensive universities”, the submission notes.

However, the Go8’s submission also goes on to acknowledge that international collaboration, “known as research without borders”, is the foundation of most of the world’s major research breakthroughs.

“This enables the best minds in each field to collaborate, regardless of nationality or location, in the pursuit of common goals – delivering the best research to solve global problems such as food and water security.”

Yet Australia’s universities have effectively agreed with ASIO to restrict research collaboration with China, which now has largest number of citations in scientific articles in the world.

The Go8’s submission states with pride that between 2015 and 2019, its members’ co-publications with China comprised just 13 per cent of their total output compared to 23 per cent for the US. The submission added that in sensitive areas, such as materials science, “Australia produced far fewer co-publications with China than did the US”.

This is nothing to celebrate. It demonstrates that if Australia wants to improve the scale and quality of its science output it needs to increase its co-authored publications with China.

Red herrings

It has also been alleged that the presence of foreigners in Australian universities raises concerns that they might pass on information to foreign agents. Given that university research should always be destined for the public domain,­ such a claim is surely a red herring. Classifying research because of commercial or security considerations undermines the potential gains from open distribution of research.

In another contradiction, the G8’s submission says that in 2019, foreign nationals comprised a significant proportion of doctoral researchers in the fields of engineering (62%), Information Technology (59%), agriculture, environmental studies (47%) and the natural and physical sciences (44%). “If Australia was to cut off this supply of talent, we risk severely curtailing our capacity to compete in the very areas we are likely to rely on to boost our economy in the coming years.”

Again, surely this would lead to the obvious conclusion that universities should refuse to let governments and security agencies interfere to stop this supply of talent.

Wild claims of disloyalty

Unfortunately, at a time of growing animosity in Australia towards people of Asian appearance, the ability to attract high-quality foreign researchers and academics will further decline when wild claims are made about the disloyalty of scientists working in Australia who have a Chinese background.

Consider Clive Hamilton’s claim in Silent Invasion that the presence of Chinese-born scientists in the CSIRO makes “it fair to assume that the results of every piece of scientific research carried out by the CSIRO becomes available free of charge in China”. This is patent scare mongering. Because the CSIRO is a public research institute, almost all its output is published in the public domain. This means it will be available to every country, not just China.

Meanwhile, a March 2021 submission from a broader lobby group representing 39 universities, called Universities Australia, starts off impeccably by saying”

“Global engagement allows universities to educate Australia’s future generations alongside the world’s best students, and enable our world-class researchers to collaborate with their peers worldwide in making cutting edge breakthroughs.”

The submission similarly then goes down a contradictory route, genuflecting at the altar of national security. The submission says it accepts that research and technology expertise “is a high value target for foreign interference”.

However, such concerns shouldn’t stop the open dissemination of all university research. Just because an intelligence agency says something is a risk doesn’t make it automatically true. There are numerous examples of where intelligence assessments developed in secrecy have proven to be false. The nonsense masquerading as intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is just one example.

The renowned physicist Edward Teller set the benchmark for rejecting censorship. Although considered the fiercest nuclear hawk of his generation in the 1940s and 50s, Teller was an outspoken opponent of government attempts to impose secrecy on scientific research, including nuclear weapons research.

He told a congressional committee in 1974:

“Modern science has developed in a spirit of openness that is antithetical to that of alchemistry. When the secrecy and mutual isolation of the alchemists was replaced by openness, this brought about the dawn of modern chemistry.”

He had earlier stated that classification could apply during the development, not the research phase, for weapons, followed by rapid declassification.

Academic freedom

ASIO’s head Mike Burgess told the PJCIS on March 11 that there had been 60 interactions between ASIO and universities in 2020. He added, “Addressing national security risks doesn’t need to come at the expense of academic freedom.”

Yet when security agencies block the release of research, that is exactly what happens.

Burgess, however, is more moderate than many in the media who criticised China’s Thousand Talents program for recruiting Australian scientists on good salaries. He said the program was “not concerning” and that it was a “natural extension of China’s strategic plan to be a world leader in technology”.

But the US, supported by some Australian politicians, is determined to stop China becoming the world’s leading high-tech country. If the US stops this by competition, that’s good, but much of the US emphasis is on increasing tariffs and stopping US companies selling software to China. Because trade is mutually beneficial, restricting trade only harms both countries.

Treasury input sidelined

Burgess told the committee that some “research and critical technologies need a protection”. In deciding which ones should be protected, he said the Home Affairs and Prime Minister’s department were drawing up a list, with input from other specified departments and agencies. Treasury didn’t get a mention.

Apparently, Treasury’s sin is that it spent decades stressing the gains available from an open, rather than a protected, economy. Sidelining Treasury and the Reserve Bank smacks of old-fashioned economic protectionism that can harm prosperity.

There may be a legitimate case for fostering Australia’s capability to make items such as vaccines and some military equipment locally. But making Australia more independent of risky supply chains will not be achieved if, as is happening with the Joint Strike Fighter program, US electronic equipment is installed in military equipment without Australians having access to computer source codes.

When he was prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said that China did not have the motive nor the capability to pose a military threat to Australia. Nothing has changed. Yes, China’s provocative statements and behaviour is antagonising every country in its region. But this is no reason to cut off all contact, including scientific engagement, especially if we want to avoid a horrific war.

Brian Toohey began his career in journalism as a political correspondent at the Australian Financial Review in 1973. He edited the National Times in the 1980s and has contributed to numerous publications. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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