Dutch government launches a guideline for weighing up doubts about international scientific cooperation. Photo: Pxhere

Ministry of Education launches new knowledge security service desk

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What are the dangers of collaborating with knowledge institutions from other countries? “That is something all academic disciplines have to deal with”, stated the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, earlier this week upon presenting a new knowledge security service desk to help academics with this type of dilemma.

Read in Dutch

Researchers are keen to establish working relationships with colleagues across the world. After all, science is a highly international field. Dijkgraaf himself is a perfect example of that: before becoming the Minister of Education, he was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

But collaboration does not come without risks. Unwanted knowledge transfer and covert influencing can take place in all sorts of ways, according to the government. Higher education and research institutions must therefore be aware of what is at stake.

In an online meeting, Dijkgraaf talked about walking a narrow path between “two ditches”. On the one hand, there are the pitfalls of “naively having the doors open wide” and on the other hand, there is the negative impact of “sealing everything tight until there is no room to breathe”.

Narrower path
The world is changing, said the minister. “The path will probably get narrower and narrower” and many people are aware of that. “This is part and parcel of research and higher education in 2022. There are so many different dimensions involved. That’s something every academic discipline has to deal with.”

That's why a special guide (in Dutch) has been published to help academics make decisions about collaborating with countries such as Russia, China, and Iran. They can also consult the new knowledge security service desk (also in Dutch).

The fifty-page guide covers issues related to national security, cybersecurity and the recruitment of researchers. It also discusses the role played by ethics. How do you collaborate with countries where human rights are not respected?

China, which has been at the epicentre of the latest controversy in this regard, is barely mentioned in the guide. The document only mentions the China Defence University Tracker, a tool to identify universities with links to the Chinese military. Less than a year ago, university magazine Delta published an article titled “How TU Delft unintentionally helps the Chinese army”, which caused quite a stir.

Sensible choices
Ultimately, the government has faith in self-regulation, which means it will be up to the institutions themselves to make sensible choices. Dijkgraaf recommends taking a measured approach: “Knowledge security measures must not be ‘excessive’ and lead to exclusion, insinuation or discrimination”, states the minister.

If the institutions find it hard to strike a balance, the service desk is there to help them. “But it doesn’t have all the answers, it isn’t an oracle”, he warned, adding that the service desk “is an interim step. Everything is fluid. It is a learning organisation.”

The service desk is part of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. Simple queries are expected to take around three days to answer, while more complex questions will take a bit longer.

Dutch higher education institutions were among the contributors to the guide, along with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Dutch Research Council. Various ministries and government departments also provided input.

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