Leave China and Russia to us, say Dutch universities

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It's not unusual for scientists to collaborate with colleagues from all over the world. There doesn't seem to be an issue with that when the research is about, say, the diet of prehistoric humans, but what if the research topic is more sensitive, like cyber security, DNA research or nuclear energy?

This week, the Dutch House of Representatives is talking to various parties about "knowledge security" and scientific collaboration with institutions from countries that are not considered free. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU in the Dutch acronym) is one of those parties. Earlier this year, the organisation published published a well-researched Framework for knowledge security at universities.

Not blind
In that document, the universities set out their guiding principle: they aspire continuously to “improve, strengthen and enrich” their international orientation as that leads to top-quality research and solutions for a better world.

But, at the same time, they are not blind to the dangers of international cooperation. There are security risks (nuclear knowledge, cyber security), economic risks (leakage of lucrative knowledge), scientific risks (censure and influencing) and ethical risks (knowledge that is used wrongly) involved.

On the other hand, a “rigid, one-dimensional approach to knowledge security” by the government is a risk too, say the universities. They fear a “protracted, bureaucratic or non-transparent process” that damages their competitive position and demotivates scientists. They can even be held financially liable if they pull the plug prematurely on an international research consortium, they warn.

Sensitive decisions
The solution: a tighter knowledge security policy, but the government should make use of “the maturity of existing processes”. In other words, the universities are well up to the task of making sensitive decisions themselves. The government should restrict itself to identifying risky countries, companies and study programmes, setting up an advice and information point and delineating the role of intelligence agencies in screening projects, organisations, people, etc.

VSNU has elaborated all of this in schedules on risk management, with impact areas, stakeholders and responsible parties. The message is loud and clear: don’t worry, we have got it under control. The universities are getting consultancy teams for knowledge security and they will be conducting awareness-raising campaigns. The aim is to make the whistleblower regulation better known and the existing risk management is being tightened.

Arm’s length
Some universities have organised this structure long ago, says VSNU, but others have not set the process up yet. But the message is clear: politicians, please keep at arm’s length.

Given the benefits of internationalisation and politicians' strong belief in the ‘autonomy’ of higher education, it is likely that the major parties in the House of Representatives will be sensitive to this argument.

It is not yet clear what this will mean in terms of collaboration with countries such as China and Russia, where the freedom of scientists is not self-evident. It emerged recently that researchers at Erasmus University have carried out questionable DNA research in collaboration with Chinese colleagues.

It is with good reason that the universities take this topic so seriously, therefore. The government has been looking with suspicion at collaborative research with countries that are not considered free. If the universities do not take it seriously, it is only a matter of time before politicians put a stop to it.