Australian researchers condemn ‘groundless vilification’ of their work with China

29-Aug-2020 Intellasia | The Guardian | 10:14 AM Print This Post

Australian scientists have been vilified for working with Chinese researchers even though the nation would be “in really serious trouble” without international partnerships, top representatives of the sector have warned.

In an emphatic defence of global research efforts, the Australian Academy of Science said it would be “such a great shame if that was jeopardised because of vilification that has no grounds”.

Universities Australia also declared that most of the country’s important research took place across international borders “and with Chinese researchers in some really important instances” including the development of the cervical cancer vaccine.

“Without research collaboration remember we’re quite a small population we are in really serious trouble,” Catriona Jackson, the head of Universities Australia, said.

The comments come at a time when Australian universities and researchers are facing intense scrutiny over how they manage the risks of international collaboration, with some Chinese government-led partnerships attracting the interest of security and intelligence agencies.

Next week the federal government will introduce new legislation giving it the power to tear up agreements that universities enter into with foreign governments a move the tertiary education union has branded as “a direct attack on university autonomy and academic freedom”.

The government is also considering calls from backbenchers to launch an inquiry into foreign interference in Australian academia, with Andrew Hastie, the chair of the security and intelligence committee, saying he is willing to oversee the investigation if asked.

A series of newspaper reports this week have raised concern about the Chinese government’s Thousand Talent Plan, with claims that some Australian participants were subject to secretive arrangements and an understanding that China would retain the intellectual property of any inventions or research.

Jackson told a Senate hearing on Friday that as far as she was aware, there was no prohibition on Australian researchers being involved in that programme but that universities had procedures in place to manage the issue.

She said universities had diligence procedures in place surrounding academics involved in Thousand Talents Plan and any university would take “a very dim view” if people did not disclose their involvement.

Jackson’s overarching call was for balance to be struck in these discussions about international research collaboration.

Anna-Maria Arabia, of the Australian Academy of Science, said it was “most unfortunate” when researchers had the finger pointed at them.

“The national interest must be protected, however this is a very well regulated space. We have the Defence Trade Controls Act, we have the foreign interference taskforce, we have a range of measures in place,” Arabia told a Senate hearing.

“If additional measures are required, that should be based on evidence and it should be done in consultation with the sector.”

During the Senate hearing, the Labour senator Kim Carr asked what happened to researchers who were subjected to “vilification to suggest that somehow or other they are acting as fifth columnists or traitors to this country”.

Arabia told the committee: “Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science have been exposed to that sort of vilification.”

She said research was “an enormous soft power asset for our nation”. In cases where there were grounds for action, there were processes in place to deal with that, Arabia said.

Misha Schubert, the chief executive of Science & Technology Australia, called on the government to protect national security interests while maintaining “the openness and that global collaboration that is the absolute foundation stone of our success as a research nation”.

Dr Alison Barnes, of the National Tertiary Education Union, told Guardian Australia the federal government’s new powers to cancel deals came at a time when universities were already facing a “perfect storm”.

“This bill will be a direct attack on university autonomy and academic freedom, an essential defining characteristic of an Australian university,” Barnes, the union’s national president, said.

Senior sources within the university sector said Scott Morrison’s announcement of the new powers on Thursday came as a surprise to them. “We were completely blindsided,” a source said. “It feels like we’re battling on so many fronts.”

The federal government says public universities along with states and territories and local councils will have to complete a stocktake of their arrangements with foreign government within six months of the bill being enacted.

The foreign affairs minister will take advice on the implications of those deals for Australia’s foreign policy and foreign relations and will have the power to cancel them. Education and science cooperation are among the types of deals that will face the new test.

Australian universities have entered into a range of innovation and technology sharing agreements potentially caught by the new law, predominantly with China, but also with India, Iran and Afghanistan.

The Group of Eight which represents the country’s top research universities has been the most scathing in its response to the proposed new powers, calling for talks to prevent “productivity-sapping consequences for the economy”.

“We are increasingly concerned at the danger that in the name of security Australia may be inadvertently threatening the very democratic principles it holds dear,” the group said in a statement issued late on Thursday.

The Group of Eight argues the government should simply use the existing university foreign interference taskforce which it described as “world-leading” to work with the sector on closing “any gaps it feels remain in Australia’s security landscape, while not damaging our essential research sector”.

The executive director of Innovative Research Universities, Conor King, said he strongly supported the Group of Eight statement because there had already been a lot of work done on the issue.

Asked about any consultation on the new powers, King said: “We had no idea about it. I certainly hadn’t seen any detail.”

Graham Perrett, Labour’s shadow assistant minister for education and training, said universities could feel “slighted by this government in a number of ways”.

“This government seems to be making it harder and harder for universities to be able to go about their business,” he told Sky News on Friday.


Category: China

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