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Many academics collaborate with fellow academics from all over the world. That does not constitute much of a problem when the subject they are researching is, say, the diet of early humans, but what happens when they work in more sensitive disciplines, such as cybersecurity, DNA research or nuclear energy?

Today the Lower House will discuss ‘knowledge security’ and collaboration with unfree countries with several parties. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) will join in the discussion, as well, having drawn up a thorough ‘Framework Document for Academic Knowledge Security’ this summer.

Not blind to the dangers

In the framework document the universities explain their guiding principle, which is always to ‘improve, strengthen and enrich’ their international approach, as this results in high-quality research and solutions for a better world.

However, they also demonstrate in the document that they are not blind to the dangers involved. There are security risks (knowledge of nuclear energy, cybersecurity), economic risks (leakage of lucrative knowledge), academic risks (censorship and results being influenced) and ethical risks (knowledge being misapplied).

On the other hand, the universities believe that a ‘rigid, one-dimensional approach to knowledge security’ by the government also poses a risk. They fear a ‘time-consuming, bureaucratic or untransparent procedure’ that will make them less competitive and may demotivate their researchers. They warn that they may even be liable for financial damage if they withdraw from an international research consortium prematurely.

The solution: a more regulated knowledge security policy is fine, but first and foremost, the government should rely on ‘the maturity of existing procedures’. Which is to say that universities are quite capable of making sensitive decisions themselves. The government’s role should be limited to identifying high-risk countries, companies and degree programmes, establishing a centre that provides consultancy services and information, and demarcating the role played by intelligence agencies in screening projects, organisations, persons, etc.

The VSNU has incorporated detailed information on all this into risk management matrices, featuring impact areas, interested parties and responsible parties. The document clearly says: no worries, we’ve got this under control. Knowledge security advisory teams will be established at universities, and they will conduct campaigns to raise awareness. The whistle-blower protection regulations are to be promoted more, and existing risk management procedures will be tightened.

No need to get involved

The VSNU feels that some universities have had their procedures in order for quite some time, while others still have to finalise theirs. But the general idea is clear: there is no need for the government to get involved. Considering the proceeds of internalisation and politicians’ belief in the autonomy of the higher education sector, it is quite likely that the larger parties represented in the Lower House will be susceptible to this argument.

What exactly this will mean for collaboration with countries such as China and Russia, where academic freedom is not guaranteed, remains to be seen. Recently researchers affiliated with Erasmus University have made the news after conducting questionable DNA research in association with Chinese academics.

There are good reasons why universities are currently taking this subject very seriously. The Lower House has long frowned on collaboration with unfree countries. If the Dutch universities fail to take the security measures seriously, it will be only a matter of time before politicians draw a line in the sand.


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