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ARC skips Senate inquiry on proposed defence law

Australian Research Council under fire for not making written submission on bill affecting scientific collaboration

The Australian Research Council has defended its decision not to make a written submission about a law that would force researchers to obtain government permission before entering into some overseas collaborations.

In a Senate estimates hearing on 15 February, Claire Forsyth, manager of the ARC’s research evaluation and data branch, and acting chief executive Richard Johnson answered questions about the Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill 2023 and its potential impact.

Forsyth said that two staff members had met Department of Defence staff before the exposure draft of the bill was released on 7 November, and that there had been a subsequent meeting “to talk about the bill and what implications that may have for researchers and how we will adjust our processes accordingly”.

But although the ARC has discussed the bill with the Department of Defence, it chose not to make a written submission to a Senate inquiry into the bill.

Forsyth was responding to questions from Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi, who said the bill would have a direct impact on the research funded by the ARC.

“Many prominent researchers have expressed serious concerns about this bill, because it would make it illegal to conduct research with foreign citizens using any ‘dual use’ technologies unless a permit is obtained,” Faruqi told the hearing of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee.

Permit required

Under the proposed law, Australian collaborations on a list of sensitive topics with researchers from any nation except the UK and the US would require a permit.

The Australian Academy of Science has raised numerous objections, with its president Chennupati Jagadish saying the law would mean that without a permit, his collaborations would see him jailed.

Faruqi said she found it “incredible” that “the ARC Act says that the ARC’s purpose includes advising the government on research matters, and the proposal in this bill could have a very significant impact on the research that you fund, and yet you didn’t provide a submission which would be publicly available”.

An ARC spokesperson told Research Professional News that “proposed changes to Australia’s export control legislation would not remove the ability for ARC-funded researchers to partner or work closely with foreign nationals”.

They did not respond to questions about what had been discussed with the Department of Defence and did not explain why no written submission had been made to the inquiry.

The inquiry has published 23 submissions from a range of universities and major science and research organisations.

In the estimates hearing, Faruqi asked whether the ARC considered the matter “important enough” to give written advice.

Johnson said he would take the question on notice, meaning he will provide the committee with a written answer later. Faruqi also asked for details to be provided of the advice given in the ARC’s discussions with the Department of Defence.

The inquiry into the bill is due to report by 30 April.