University of Queensland

Why isn’t Australia securing its critical research?

Just before Christmas last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States announced aims to establish a network which would enable the funders of university research to share information about applications, applicants and programs of national security concern. 

That same news story mentioned that the NSF had already established a dialogue with the main funding body for the United Kingdom (UK), Research and Innovation, as well as Canada’s Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council. Talks have also been planned with The Netherlands government, home of the National Contact Point for Knowledge Security

What was interesting – and somewhat chilling – about the announcement was the obvious omission of Australia and its principal funding body, the Australian Research Council (ARC). 

This apparent lack of engagement with Australia over securing research seems a little at-odds with the United States’ other foreign policy measures, such as the AUKUS Agreement under which Australia will become just the seventh country with nuclear-powered submarines. And submarines are just the tip of the AUKUS iceberg. Australia, its universities, and academics will be responsible for leading research into defence-aligned fields under AUKUS like cybersecurity, robotics, advanced hypersonics, and teaching the next generations of experts in those fields. 

So why has Australia been left out in the cold?

Well, one possible reason is that Australia has one of the weakest research security frameworks in the developed world. We don’t even recognize the term “research security” or the closely aligned “knowledge security” – the former term focuses on securing the products and outcomes of academic research, the latter on the actual researchers and research process itself.

The Commonwealth Government doesn’t have an articulated public policy position on research security, beyond their Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector (which haven’t been updated since 2021). The ARC – which administers around 30% of Government investment in university research through the National Competitive Grants Program –  also doesn’t articulate a research security strategy. Their Countering Foreign Interference Framework leaves most of the heavy lifting in monitoring national security risk to individual universities.

Of course, the ARC Framework also only applies when universities seek funding from the ARC, so it doesn’t cover research which universities fund themselves. Up to 70% of university research is self-funded – which in turn is tied directly to international student enrolments – meaning that funding took a massive hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This lack of a proper research funding base in Australia was called out as a “national security risk” by ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.

Our university research system is also subject to hugely fluctuating externalities, like tying promotions and advancement to “research impact” (a measure of how widely published materials like journal articles are being read or cited). Yet our ability to recognize, respect, and reward the hard work of research academics and staff in Australia is so bad it led Chief Scientist Cathy Foley to recently label the system “not fit for purpose”.

And the threats faced by our researchers aren’t ephemeral – in October at the Five Eyes intelligence summit in Palo Alto, ASIO’s Director-General Mike Burgess detailed a plot involving a Chinese professor who had been recruited by the Ministry of State Security. That professor was given “money and a shopping list of intelligence requirements” before he was intercepted by ASIO and removed from the country. The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) has also highlighted AUKUS technologies as a specific target for hacking and cyberespionage groups from China, Iran and North Korea.

So, what can Australia do about this deplorable situation?

Firstly, the Commonwealth Government needs to articulate a position on research and knowledge security in Australia. It would be auspicious timing to do so. The Universities Accord – the body established to “drive a visionary plan for Australia’s universities and higher education sector” – handed its final report to Education Minister Jason Clare on 28 December. The Government could use that report as the catalyst to establish a national policy on research and knowledge security.

Secondly, the Government needs to get itself on the same page as its AUKUS partners on the matter of research security. Given Australian cybersecurity has already been called the “weakest link” in the AUKUS triad, we have our work cut out for us. But the dangers of not doing so – including potential proliferation of nuclear materials to rogue states – is too terrifying to contemplate.

Thirdly, the Government – including intelligence agencies ASIO and ASD – and our universities need to find a way to work more closely and harmoniously. At Senate Estimates in May 2023, Burgess acknowledged that ASIO officers were “embedded in the AUKUS team in Defence that actually help Defence with their security posture”

Yet there hasn’t been a rush to embed ASIO officials inside universities – quite the opposite. In February 2023, ASIO rejected a recommendation by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to publish their activities involving higher education institutions. Then ASIO quietly published a resource for universities who at times seemed to be struggling with their security obligations: the “Collaborate with Care: Protect Your Research” booklet. Whilst that resource is helpful, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to uplifting the security awareness and maturity of academics in Australia.

Lastly, as a society Australia needs a more open dialogue about what the research we need to protect, and what we don’t. Revelations of anti-Semitism in US universities has already claimed the jobs of two Ivy League presidents, following claims that those universities were sheltering and even encouraging extremist opinions. Closer to home, last year a professor at RMIT was allegedly sacked for exercising his academic freedom when he pointed out “what he believed was a sex-based double standard” on Twitter. Given the highly polemic and politicized debate around the AUKUS Agreement and our universities, we need to be abundantly clear about how we intend to protect national security, not prevent our academics from contributing to healthy and crucial public debate.

Dr Brendan Walker-Munro is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s Law School. His research focus is on aspects of national security law, particularly on the implications of national security risks on higher education research and teaching. He may be contacted on LinkedIn at Dr Brendan Walker-Munro | LinkedIn or via the UQ website: Dr Brendan Walker-Munro – UQ Researchers