Universities ‘moving closer to the centre’ of political conflict

UK’s chief scientific adviser for national security says threat to universities’ values is most significant risk

November 13, 2020
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The greatest security risk facing UK universities is the threat to their values and the integrity of their research as a result of “being caught in the middle of a rising China and an increasingly opposed America”, the country’s chief scientific adviser for national security has claimed.

Anthony Finkelstein, whose research is based at the Alan Turing Institute and who holds a chair in software systems engineering at UCL, said the Covid-19 pandemic had “underscored the significance of science and technology as a domain of strategic competition between states”.

“Science and technology is no longer at the periphery of such a contest,” he said, adding that as a result “universities are increasingly targeted and lie ever closer to the centre of a great power and political contest”.

Speaking during a Universities UK conference, Security and Risk Management in Higher Education: Protecting Universities from Hostile Actors, Professor Finkelstein said “universities need to be increasingly adversarially conscious of the global picture”.

“Rightly, universities have significantly emphasised their global role, but they must also increasingly recognise the role that they need to play nationally and in the state that ultimately sustains them and enables them to enjoy the distinctive values and freedom that they do,” he said.

He added that universities would increasingly have to think more closely about their responsibility in respect to defence and security – an area he said had previously been assigned to the periphery of universities, while other concerns had dominated.

When asked to name the most significant security risk facing UK universities over the next five years, Professor Finkelstein, who will take over as president of City, University of London in 2021, said: “You might expect me to say…theft of key intellectual property that bears upon the UK’s economic prosperity, and I regard that as a serious and important threat.

“But actually I think overlying that is the threat to our values, and the threat to the integrity of our research systems and to our collective cohesion from the actions of states and of a hostile, emergent international environment.”

He added that there was “a temptation to concentrate on the hard-edged, immediate” issues, but the larger question for the UK was about “being caught in the middle of a rising China and an increasingly opposed America”.

“That’s a risk outside any power bloc,” he said.

Professor Finkelstein said that while the UK had “put a lot of money into our research base”, it had, on the whole, “starved government science of money”.

“The consequence of that is that, on many critical issues, the ability of universities to work together with government on shared strategic concerns has diminished. So I think there are changes in our research landscape which are going to be necessary to adjust that,” he said, adding that the idea of a new “Arpa” agency – a UK equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) – might help to address this.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Finally someone seeing the 'bigger picture'?

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