Minister wants ‘binding commitments’ with institutions on knowledge security

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Knowledge institutions need to arm themselves better against unwanted interference by autocratic countries. It is up to supervisory boards to check that they are doing so, Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf said earlier this week in the House of Representatives.

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Knowledge security has been high on the agenda for a while. Last week, Minister Dijkgraaf launched a special helpdesk where institutions can get information on how to combat issues such as espionage and other types of unwanted interference.

Major clean-up
But this has not yet alleviated all the concerns, as made clear by a debate in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. According to MP Hatte van der Woude (VVD), a “major clean-up operation” is needed in higher education. Both future and existing partnerships need to be reviewed. In Van der Woude’s view, it should not be a voluntary matter for institutions to take action on knowledge security.

She mentioned the VU Amsterdam human rights centre, which was discredited when it turned out to be funded by China. “A self-cleansing capability is not sufficient”, she concluded. Harry van der Molen (CDA) agreed: “It shows that people can be very intelligent and very naive at the same time”.

Regular target
Dijkgraaf is worried, too. Dutch knowledge institutions are the target of manipulation and interference on a regular basis, and he doesn’t think that is going to change any time soon. “So, we have to arm ourselves against it.”

He wants knowledge security to become an “integral part” of an institution’s policy and promised to make “binding commitments” to that effect. Supervisory boards must monitor this. As for the minister, he will discuss the topic with the institutions twice a year to see if they are keeping a close eye on the matter.

Model contracts
More ideas were put forward. Jeanet van der Laan (D66), for instance, argued for the legal establishment of academic freedom in partnerships, so that researchers can always publish their results. “Model contracts” could help in that regard, she suggested, so that researchers do not have to negotiate from scratch each time they partner up with countries like China.

The minister was willing to draw up a list with “a number of crucial building blocks” for such a contract. However, he felt that drawing up a model contract was somewhat excessive because a partnership often needs to be custom-made.

Insensitive methods
Harry van der Molen (CDA) called attention to people with malicious intent. He would like “a check on people looking to get access to areas in which the risks to national knowledge security are great”. He advocates “generic measures” for particular fields of knowledge such as nuclear technology, which in his view are “clearly vulnerable”. That way, the institutions would not have to “put every individual through the wringer, even though we know that we don’t want inflows from a specific country”.

Dijkgraaf made a proviso, however. He warns against “insensitive methods” that cause the knowledge system to “shut down”, even though it is “very possible that at a certain point we could draw generic conclusions about specific domains and specific exchange programmes”.

In fact, there are already knowledge embargos on Iran and North Korea, so a form of individual check is already in place in some fields. Their scope, however, is limited, and there are probably more countries with which it is inadvisable to share certain knowledge. Dijkgraaf has also stated that there is going to be a review framework for everyone from outside the European Union. He expects it to come into operation in 2023. “Sooner rather than later”, he said.

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