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Science collaboration may carry jail risk under proposed law


Australian Department of Defence proposal would increase penalties for sharing sensitive research

Australian researchers may be at risk of being jailed under proposed technology export controls, with the Australian Academy of Science warning that the rules could jeopardise international collaborations.

On 7 November, the Department of Defence released an exposure draft of a proposed law that would tighten how sharing of declared critical technologies is regulated.

The exposure draft would add new offences to the Defence Trade Controls Act, which provides for prison sentences. The offences would include unauthorised sharing of technologies that are on Australia’s Defence and Strategic Goods List, including within Australia to foreign nationals. The list currently includes 37 technologies in seven fields of research.

At an Australian Academy of Science symposium on international collaboration in Canberra on 14 November, academy president Chennupati Jagadish said that while the new rules would allow free collaboration with the UK and the US on sensitive research, permits would be needed for collaboration with other nations. “So it expands Australia’s backyard to include the US and the UK, but it raises the fence [to other nations],” Jagadish said. “I would require an approved permit prior to collaborating with [non-US and -UK] foreign nationals. Without it, my collaborations would see me jailed.”

His own research, into nanotechnologies and semiconductors, would fall foul of the proposed law, he said. His research team features international researchers, including students, and he maintains “some 30 collaborations” worldwide. “To comply with the new laws, I would have to lock down my collaborations and restrict my communications.”

Jagadish said that Australia’s research performance relative to spending was high but that this was based largely on the ability to collaborate freely.

“It’s timely to ask what Australia is really seeking to secure [with the new law],” he said, adding that the regulations could capture matters such as students venting frustrations with their research. “We are human and it ought not to be a jailable offence.”

The UK and the US are Australia’s partners in the Aukus defence agreement. The Department of Defence also referred to the Australian Defence Strategic Review, released earlier this year, as a reason for the proposals.

Security concerns

Nathan Smyth, deputy secretary for national security and resilience at the Department of Home Affairs, told the symposium that while international science programmes had benefits, “taking a step back, there are limits…We do operate in a contested world.”

There are some areas “where we can share very little, or nothing at all, like national security”, he said.

He warned that “state actors” or their proxies were behind the majority of attempts to steal and spy on Australian research and technology, and he called on the research sector to increase its vigilance and due diligence of employees and collaboration partners.

Some research is “highly desirable by other countries. This makes you and your institution extremely attractive,” Smyth said.

Earlier this year, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation forced the expulsion of an unnamed university professor from the country after discovering an espionage attempt. Smyth said that security agencies were starting to see “share manipulation, board manipulation” and hacking of Australian technology startups.

He also revealed that the Australian government is considering setting up industry security taskforces for technology research outside the university sector, following the success of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce.

In a separate address on 13 November, academy chief executive Anna-Maria Arabia said that any new restrictions on sharing research must come with “resources to establish secure research facilities and to educate and train the research workforce to make it more security aware”.

Comment on the exposure draft is open until 17 November.