Several political parties have expressed serious concerns about knowledge security at universities, and any incident in this area immediately sets off the alarm bells. We’ve been a bit naive, said Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf on the matter.

China in particular is in the spotlight. Researchers at Delft University of Technology were found to be unintentionally helping the Chinese army. The human rights centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which has now closed, received Chinese funding. Chinese PhD candidates were required to pass information to their embassy.

Service desk

As security agencies continue to issue strong warnings, the KNAW believes that the situation with regard to knowledge security in the Netherlands has now improved. Last year, the government opened a ‘service desk’ for researchers who might have questions. A ‘guideline’ on knowledge security in scientific research has also been drawn up.

The government believes this does not go far enough, however. It is considering introducing systematic screening of researchers coming to this country from outside Europe. The KNAW writes in a new position paper that this would be disproportionate.

In talks

KNAW President Marileen Dogterom is a University Professor at Delft University of Technology and understands how important knowledge security is. Together with other scientists in the Netherlands and abroad, she is working on building synthetic cells.

“It is fundamental research, where we are trying to understand how living cells work by replicating them”, says Dogterom. “We dream of one day being able to use cell-like systems to produce certain substances in a sustainable way. Research programmes similar to this are also running in China. The scientists working in these programmes are keen to collaborate with us. We’re presently in the midst of this.”

There are important criteria to consider when choosing to collaborate with them, she says. “We talk with our own university, our knowledge security team and anyone else who has expertise in this field, as well as seeking advice from the government. How should the collaboration be shaped? How do we ensure that both parties benefit?”

Suppose someone says, based on their gut feeling or intuition, that you shouldn’t collaborate at all with a country like China, where there is no academic freedom. What could you answer?

“That is a complicated question. My field spans the entire globe and is extremely multidisciplinary. We’re part of a European research consortium, but research similar to ours is also being conducted in the United States and Asia. China is part of a consortium that includes the likes of Japan, Singapore, Australia and South Korea. These are countries we might want to collaborate with. Would we be prevented from doing that? And if there were no obstacles, why then can’t we collaborate directly with China? It’s a real puzzle, and just introducing an exclusionary policy doesn’t seem like a solution to me.”

If it’s so complicated, can you leave that responsibility to scientists? Surely they prefer to do research without getting into geopolitical issues?

“We ask scientists also to explore the principles of scientific integrity, so why shouldn’t they also examine these issues? Of course, they need support in doing so. Researchers should talk to their supervisors, the security team at their university or, if necessary, the executive board, but it’s not a good idea to leave the researcher out of the equation altogether. They know the most about their particular field.”

The KNAW says there’s little point in screening all incoming researchers and scientists from outside Europe, as that can lead to a false sense of security.

“Indeed. Suppose you decide to screen large groups of researchers, except for those with European passports… If I had ill-intentioned motives, I’m pretty certain I’d know how to get around this. Risks are a constant factor that you have to try to minimise and weigh as reasonably as you can against other risks.”

What other risks are you referring to?

“The greatest risk is that international collaboration and knowledge exchange, both of which are absolutely essential, will be halted. In the Netherlands, we have a system of academic freedom and open collaboration with other countries. This is fundamental to our progress.”

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The KNAW believes the government should instead focus on raising ‘awareness’ amongst researchers and scientists. Isn’t that just creating a false sense of security?

“No, I don’t think so. Of course, we can’t eliminate every risk, but neither can the government for that matter.”

If scientists still don’t see the problem after all the incidents that have occurred, does it help to ‘focus on raising awareness’?

“Whatever course of action the government chooses, awareness is always very important. Also, it’s clearly on the rise. Most universities now have a knowledge security team, for example.”

The KNAW says the government should assign responsibility for knowledge security where it belongs: the universities themselves. That sounds a bit like placing responsibility for the fight against drug trafficking with the port authorities themselves.

“But drug trafficking is illegal, so that’s a clear difference. The fight against crime is the government’s responsibility. That is less complicated than the considerations surrounding scientific collaboration.”

You can say: leave awareness and everything it involves to us; don’t worry, we’ll sort it. But it’s not strange surely if there is some control exercised?

“No, that’s not strange. The ministry is conducting an audit of policies related to knowledge security. The focus is on research universities to begin with, followed by universities of applied sciences and knowledge institutions. The audit revolves around the question: what is being done at the universities, and is there scope for improvement? What arrangements are in place, and what is yet to be done? And I couldn’t agree more – an audit such as this is essential.”

Universities also have to screen their collaborative partners. Why, then, would it be unfeasible for the government to do this?

“Screening in a specific area might be possible. Sanctions against Iran and North Korea mean that we already conduct such screening for nuclear scientists. But it’s vital then that you clearly determine the area to which the screening relates.”

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