Legislate to protect academics from trade rules, Australia told

Care needed to avoid scaring off doctoral students and burying officials in paperwork, senators hear

March 1, 2024
A close up of a man in a suite with his hands tied up with red tape
Source: iStock/sirandel

Australia must provide a legislated guarantee quarantining basic research from new permit requirements in overhauled technology export laws, experts say.

Former chief scientist Ian Chubb warned against using “regulations” to exempt fundamental research from requirements in the draft Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill, which could see researchers imprisoned for sharing details about sensitive technology with foreigners – other than Britons or Americans – without obtaining permits.

Professor Chubb, policy secretary of the Australian Academy of Science, said legislating the exemption would guard against its removal on political whim. “We want it in the act because we don’t want a minister to…be able to change it without any scrutiny by parliament,” he told a Senate committee.

Failure to legislate the exemption could leave it vulnerable to pressure from foreign leaders who wanted to limit Australian collaboration, he warned.

“Science power has become multipolar…and we need to make sure that we don’t cut ourselves off from it. Most knowledge is generated elsewhere. The only way we get to use it…is to participate in it. It would be unfortunate if we handed over our sovereignty in this particular area.”

In 2015, a steering group led by the then chief scientist negotiated changes to the original Defence Trade Controls Act. As a result, “most Australian research was unencumbered by bureaucratic inertia”, he told the committee.

He said the new amendments warranted similar care. While the proposed regime potentially lightened red tape around science conducted with the US and UK “it also raises the bar for the rest of the world, including long-term collaborators in Europe, south-east Asia, Oceania and the Americas”.

John Byron, principal policy adviser at Queensland University of Technology, said foreign PhD students could be harmed by permit requirements. “Assuming they’ve not yet been awarded a permit, they would be asked to leave the room. There’d be things that supervisors could not discuss with them and they would have limited access to certain equipment,” he said.

“It could result in them rejecting Australia as a destination. These are very talented people. A lot of countries…would like to have their contribution. They may go somewhere that’s more welcoming.”

Dr Byron, who also advised former science and higher education minister Kim Carr, said all foreign doctoral students should be scrutinised at visa application stage to determine their suitability for sensitive research. “But we should make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. Citizenship of a particular country is a very broad net,” he said.

He said the proposals could also saddle defence officials with a huge administrative burden, just as the Department of Foreign Affairs had been inundated with work after it “radically underestimated” the number of university agreements requiring approval under the Foreign Relations Act.

“I don’t think the Department of Defence really knows just how many permit applications they’re going to get,” Dr Byron said. “I don’t think they’ve got any idea what’s coming.”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute said such concerns were overblown. The institute’s director of defence strategy and national security, Bec Shrimpton, said authorities needed to address the “great levels of confusion” about the bill so that “we don’t have a conversation around concerns that don’t exist”.

“There is a huge need for a communication push to clarify…what this means for academia,” Ms Shrimpton said. “They need to test whether or not they’re going to be subject to in the way that they think they are. In some cases, they are wrong.”


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