Interview with Saar Slegers

Knowledge security screening is unworkable, says journalist

Photo: 123RF

Intelligence agencies have been warning about the dangers of espionage taking place at universities and other knowledge institutions. Dutch politicians have voiced similar concerns. In response, the Dutch government launched a knowledge security line, which researchers and institutions can call for advice. Last year, the line received 150 inquiries.

But how can one protect knowledge when knowledge sharing is the lifeblood of the sector? The top scientists from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) have raised a lot of questions. In a documentary podcast titled Vriend of Vijand (which means Friend or Foe in Dutch, Ed.), the science journalist Saar Slegers, from HUMAN/VPRO's investigative team, examines the dilemmas underpinning the knowledge security policy of the Netherlands and the new screening procedures scheduled for 2025. 

How did you get the idea to make a podcast about knowledge security? 
“I used to make a podcast called De man en de maan (The Man and the Moon, Ed.), which focused on our scientific cooperation with China. The Chinese are eager to lead the space race as soon as they possibly can. I followed a Dutch scientist who wanted to place antennas on the dark side of the moon to find out more about events that happened right after the Big Bang. The Chinese gave permission for his equipment to hitch a ride on one of their rockets but the process was anything but smooth. Doubts kept surfacing as to whether China was a reliable partner. These past few years, China’s image has been shifting rapidly from an emerging global superpower investing in international cooperation to a country we need to be wary of. After that podcast, I learned that this shift is part of a wider trend of increased suspicion directed at scientists from abroad and a sense that they are less welcome.” 

Who did you talk to for your research? 
“Professors; researchers from Iran, China and Russia; people working at KNAW and the security services; MPs and the Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf.”

What kind of knowledge is the Netherlands trying to protect? 
“The initial focus was on technology that can be used to develop high-tech weapon systems as that took a wrong turn in the 1970s, when a Pakistani metallurgist obtained classified nuclear information in the Netherlands and passed it on to advance Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme. Other sensitive areas include microturbine applications that can be used to enhance rocket technology. These past few years, more and more attention is being paid to the protection of knowledge of economic importance. Examples include chip technology, artificial intelligence and biotechnology – fields where the Netherlands is keen to maintain its leading position on the international market. Universities of technology tend to operate in many knowledge areas deemed sensitive: this is true for almost all departments at TU Delft, where about 30 percent of researchers come from outside the European Union. At other universities, non-EU researchers often account for over one-fifth of the total number of scientists.”

The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, has announced a new screening framework to protect the Netherlands' high-tech knowledge, scheduled to launch in 2025. Is that good news? 
“That remains to be seen. It means that all scientists from outside the EU will be screened if they want to work in sensitive fields. This could well prove hard to implement, not to mention it brings the risk of discrimination. Researchers working on missile technology are already required to complete a 63-item questionnaire by way of screening. They are asked to list everyone they know from their home university and describe any situations when others showed a particular interest in their research. Security agencies take all this into account when making their evaluation.” 

But surely those researchers also understand that our security is at stake? 
“You can tell them that they shouldn’t take things personally, of course. But look at it from their point of view: it can feel very personal and intense when the university you graduated from is blacklisted. What if they end up being persecuted by their home country? This puts them in a very difficult situation. The minister wants to carry out assessments on a case-by-case basis but how would such a thing work? Besides, there’s always the risk of exclusion: some departments already take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach and bar Chinese and Iranian candidates altogether.”

Can our sensitive knowledge be protected without excluding or discriminating against top scientists? 
“That’s the problem, not least because top talent in the technology sector often comes from outside the EU. KNAW, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, therefore warns against becoming too suspicious. They say our interests are best served by open collaboration in as many areas as possible. Researchers at the University of Twente are also worried that the screenings will cause significant delays, leading talented scientists from abroad to opt for a position in Germany instead.”

But screenings of this kind are not entirely new.
“That’s true. They have been a hot topic for some time. In 2009, a group of Iranian students and scholars won a court case on this issue. The court ruled that Dutch institutions had no right to exclude them from study programmes that included nuclear engineering. The researchers I spoke to for this podcast are worried about a new Cold War scenario, in which we label people as friend or foe. Things aren’t always what they seem. For example, I spoke to one Iranian researcher who was recruited by the Iranian secret service but refused to cooperate. He spent six years in prison and now he no longer trusts Iranians abroad. When you start excluding people categorically, what chance does an individual have to prove that their intentions are good?”