Defence chiefs’ push for more control over research rebuffed

Universities ‘relieved’ at rejection of defence department demands for more control over technology they create

February 14, 2019
Australian soldiers

Australia’s government has sided with an independent reviewer to scuttle Department of Defence demands for greater control over university research.

But the review, by former security and intelligence chief Vivienne Thom, has knocked back university calls for basic research to be given greater exemptions from the Defence Trade Controls Act.

The act requires permits for the publication, communication and sales of technology on the Defence and Strategic Goods List, deemed as posing a potential threat to Australia’s security if it were to fall into the wrong hands. The department wanted the scope of regulated technologies broadened to reflect changes in the national security environment.

This could have hindered research collaborations in a slew of areas including telecommunications, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, autonomy, biotechnology, hypersonics, nanotechnology and new materials, the review heard.

Even identifying the technologies to be regulated would be a time-consuming task and “administratively burdensome” for universities and other research organisations, it heard.

Dr Thom said that a more “proportionate” approach was needed to address gaps in the legislation, “but also the serious and legitimate concerns of industry, research bodies and universities”.

“Any solution must focus effort and resources on protecting technology that would cause the most damage should it be obtained by foreign entities,” she said.

The government agreed, saying that it would establish a working group – including university representatives – to develop “practical, risk-based proposals”.

Defence minister Christopher Pyne said that there was a need to balance commerce and innovation with protection from potential threats. “It is important…that any future amendments do not unnecessarily restrict trade, research and international collaboration and impede the development of Australia’s defence capability,” he said.

The Group of Eight hailed the result as a win for university advocacy. “The department’s proposals would have impacted upon our capacity to carry out research integral to Australia’s international reputation and competitiveness,” said Vicki Thomson, the mission group’s chief executive.

“Successful research is global. It has no borders. But we always take national security seriously and this report reflects that view.”

Shadow science minister Kim Carr said that he was relieved that Dr Thom had rejected “the hysterical campaign to shut down research in Australian universities”.

However, the review rejected university and research agency calls for a broader exemption of basic scientific research. Submissions had stressed that the exemption did not apply to “research undertaken with a specific aim” – an “overly restrictive” provision because the “vast majority of research, even at the basic and theoretical levels, is performed with the broad objective of a specific application”.

“While the review accepts that the exemptions in Australia may not align exactly with those in the US, it was not persuaded that a case to amend the basic scientific research exemption has been made,” Dr Thom said.

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