Intelligence agencies are warning about the dangers of espionage at universities and other knowledge institutions. Politicians have voiced similar concerns about international cooperation. In response, a knowledge security hotline was opened, which researchers and institutions can contact for advice. Last year, it dealt with 150 inquiries.

But how do you go about protecting knowledge when knowledge sharing is the lifeblood of the sector? For leading scientists at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and elsewhere, this raises all kinds of questions. In a five-part documentary podcast Friend or Foe, science journalist Saar Slegers of HUMAN/VPRO’s investigative Argos team examines the dilemmas that underpin the Netherlands’ knowledge security policy and the country’s new screening procedures scheduled for 2025.

vriend of vijand – podcastafbeelding_VPRO-Human
Image credit: VPRO/ HUMAN

Why did you want to make a podcast about knowledge security?

“I previously made the podcast The Man and the Moon, which focuses on 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 discover more about events immediately 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. And in recent years, China’s image has shifted rapidly, from an emerging global superpower investing in international cooperation to a country you need to be wary of. After that podcast, I learned that this shift is part of a wider trend: increasing suspicion directed at scientists from abroad and a sense that they are less welcome.”

Who did you talk to for your report?

“I spoke to professors, to researchers from Iran, China and Russia, and to staff from the security services and KNAW, as well as MPs and education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf.”

What kind of knowledge is the Netherlands aiming to protect?

“The initial focus was on technology that can be used to develop high-tech weapon systems. That took a very 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. But other sensitive areas include microturbine applications that can be used to enhance rocket technology. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on protecting knowledge of economic importance. Examples include chip technology, artificial intelligence and biotechnology – fields where we are keen to maintain our leading position on the international market. Universities of technology in particular operate in many sensitive areas of knowledge. At TU Delft, this is true of almost half of all departments. About 30 percent of Delft’s researchers come from outside the European Union. At other universities, non-EU researchers often account for over one fifth of the total number.”

The education minister has announced a new screening framework to protect our high-tech knowledge, due 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 and 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?

“Of course, you can say they shouldn’t take it so personally. But look at it from their point of view: it can feel very personal and intense when the university you graduated from is blacklisted. And what if they end up being persecuted by their home country? That puts them in a very difficult situation. The education minister wants assessments on a case by case basis, but how would that work? And there’s always the risk of exclusion: some departments already take a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach and bar Chinese and Iranian candidates.”

Can our sensitive knowledge be protected without excluding or discriminating against top scientists?

“That’s the whole 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; our interests are best served by open collaboration in as many areas as possible. Researchers at the University of Twente are worried that the screenings will cause significant delays and lead talented scientists from abroad to opt for a post in Germany instead.”

Screenings of this kind are not entirely new.

“That’s true. They have been under discussion 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?”



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