Labs face the threat of infiltration by extremists

Universities warned that anti-research campaigners could attack from within. Chloe Stothart reports

May 1, 2008

Universities are leaving themselves "wide open" to infiltration by campaigners opposed to their research or funding sources, a conference of university security managers has been told.

The Association of University Chief Security Officers (AUCSO) heard that campaigners from a growing range of causes, such as animal rights, might apply for work at universities in order to leak information or expose research they believe is morally wrong.

Institutions are vulnerable to people opposed to their research on issues such as road expansion, air travel, climate change, mineral extraction, GM crops and nuclear power or to those who object to some of the companies sponsoring their work, according to Pro-Active Security Solutions, which advises universities on the vetting of staff to avoid extremists.

A spokesman for the company's managing director thought many universities did not screen would-be employees adequately. Just four out of a workshop of 19 security officers at the conference said their institution vetted its staff. He said all universities should check the identity, address and nationality of applicants as a minimum.

The company found that animal-rights activists had secured jobs at 21 universities and teaching hospitals in the past 21 years, but it was unclear how many had been deterred from applying or were undetected.

In one instance, an animal-rights campaigner worked for almost a year at a University of Cambridge laboratory filming brain experiments on monkeys. The company had also come across leaflets offering would-be whistleblowers £15,000 to £20,000 for information on the University of Oxford's new biomedical research laboratory, which had been the subject of protests from animal-rights campaigners.

The spokesman added that he had come across at least six examples of discrepancies in the identities of people seeking jobs in universities when his firm vetted their applications over the past four to five years.

He said: "Bearing in mind the research programmes that some universities run, they leave themselves wide open to single-issue extremism.

"People (in universities) are very hung up on animal rights, but actually it is much wider; people will infiltrate for a lot of causes and there is crossover. Some of the people I see storming the fences at G8 (summits) are the same ones involved in animal rights and nuclear power. It (the infiltration) is designed to embarrass and compromise, and expose what they believe is malpractice."

The Government introduced a compulsory vetting system last November for postgraduate students from countries deemed high risk who are studying subjects that could contribute to the creation of weapons of mass destruction.

It is also discussing universities' role in monitoring the compliance of overseas staff with immigration rules as part of the move to an Australian-style immigration points system.

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities are training their security staff to physically separate and restrain violent people on campus, the conference heard.

Bill Fox, managing director of violence-reduction training firm Maybo, said universities were increasingly aware that they could face compensation claims from injured security staff if they failed to provide them with proper training. He added that regulators such as the Health and Safety Executive were pushing employers to prevent violence at work.

A new guide to managing major emergencies on campus will be launched in a fortnight by AUCSO.

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