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Russell Group and Go8 call for int’l R&D protection

Research-intensive universities in the UK and Australia have said “pragmatic, risk-based” measures are required to protect future international research collaboration.

Sensitive research could include collaborations with countries under sanctions or with authoritarian regimes, or research in sensitive technology areas. Photo: pexels

The ATAS scheme ensures foreign students and researchers are cleared by UK security agencies before undertaking research in sensitive technology areas

In a joint statement, Australia’s Group of Eight and the UK’s Russell Group have pledged to continue collaborating with their respective governments and security agencies to ensure future international research partnerships can continue despite “rapidly evolving threats”.

“The Go8 and the Russell Group produce a range of high-quality, world class research that addresses [a range of] challenges and underpins the success and prosperity of both our nations,” the organisations said, following a meeting of the boards last week.

“We recognise that, like any other valuable asset, this research, and the collaborations that drive it need to be protected from rapidly evolving threats in a complex global environment.”

“This research, and the collaborations that drive it need to be protected from rapidly evolving threats in a complex global environment”

Challenges the organisations list include: climate change; food and water security; global pandemics; antibiotic resistance; and the ethical use of emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning, among others.

The Russell Group’s 24 UK university members and Go8’s eight research-intensive university members say they will “continue developing effective and risk-based measures to protect future international collaborations, prevent unnecessarily restrictive measures and ensure our respective nations remain open to the world”.

Sensitive research could include collaborations with countries under sanctions or authoritarian regimes, or research in sensitive technology areas.

Measures by which the UK government can block “potentially sensitive” research collaboration, include provisions in the new National Security and Investment Act and the ATAS scheme that ensures foreign students and researchers are cleared by security agencies before undertaking research in sensitive technology areas, a Russell Group spokesperson told The PIE.

“Universities also undertake their own rigorous due diligence to see if collaborations are consistent with their own values or pose security risks,” they added.

A HEPI report from February called for “more targeted” legislation to protect national security. Ben Moore, policy manager at the Russell Group, said at the time that the NSI Act must be implemented correctly in order to “ensure it properly balances national security and the UK’s ability to build new international partnerships”.

“The best regulatory regimes are targeted, risk-based, and impose the minimum burden required to deliver critical policy goals,” he said in February.

“By contrast, a less targeted approach that treats a partnership between a UK university and a German or US company as equivalent to one with, for example, a firm under state control in a country under sanctions could result in the new system being overwhelmed with referrals and ultimately result in more risky transactions being missed.”

The Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson has also said that the upcoming 2022 federal election in Australia, slated for May 21, “provides the opportunity for elected decision-makers to put universities front and centre of government strategy to meet the obvious challenges that lie ahead”. Current polls predict there will be a change of government.

Thomson suggested to The Australian that research funding in Australia needs a shakeup, pointing to the “full economic cost funding regime” model in the UK that covers direct and indirect costs as an alternative.

Every $1 of research funding from the Australian Research Council requires an additional $1 from internal university funds to support indirect costs, Go8 estimates.

In 2018, Go8 collectively spent $6.45 billion on R&D, of which more than $3bn came from internal university funds, primarily international student fees, with federal government stumping up $2.3bn and an additional $1bn came from state governments, businesses and philanthropy, The Australian reported.

“Relying on international student fee revenue to fund our national research effort is neither sustainable nor ethical”

Australian universities lost an estimated $1.8bn in revenue in 2020 compared to 2019, Universities Australia has suggested.

“Relying on international student fee revenue to fund our national research effort is neither sustainable nor ethical,” Thomson told the paper.

Members of the Go8 account for more than 70% of Australia’s university research activity, while members of the Russell Group produce 68% of the UK’s university research activity.

The European Commission also released a staff working document earlier this year in an attempt to tackle foreign interference in research and innovation at universities across the continent.

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