Public servants could compromise national security academic research initiatives, report says

By Tom Ravlic

March 28, 2022

Senator Paterson says legislation by its nature restricts, regulates and controls and none of it should be just there to sit on the statute forever.
Senator James Paterson, committee chair. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Public servants should be banned from participating in talent-recruitment programs that lead to research initiatives that compromise Australia’s national security, according to a newly released report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on national security risks affecting the Australian higher education and research sector.

The bi-partisan report makes 27 recommendations that relate to dealing with the attempts by foreign jurisdictions to use academics and joint-research projects as a way of accessing outcomes of sensitive taxpayer-funded research.

One of the key recommendations made by the committee is for there to be a risk-based audit of research grants given by the Australian Research Council conducted by the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment in order to assess how many of these projects had been linked to talent recruitment programs such as the Thousand Talents Program.

The committee said that the audit should also look at whether grant rules related to the intellectual property were adhered to and sensitive research has not fallen into the hands of a foreign government.

Penalties applying to the breaches of ARC grant rules that apply to universities that fail to “detect or respond to any breaches”.

Training in national security-related issues for university staff and students is recommended as is the communication of Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme requirements to foreign student associations operating on Australian university campuses.

The committee has also asked foreign minister Marise Payne to determine the future of a $10 million contract between Monash University and COMAC – a Chinese government-owned aviation company that has been linked to a global industrial cyber-espionage campaign and been sanctioned by the US government.

Committee chair senator James Paterson said universities had already done much to address issues related to foreign interference on their campuses but addressing serious threats to students and their institutions remains a priority.

“There’s no question that students and academics have faced a sustained campaign of intimidation, harassment, censorship and intelligence gathering by foreign state governments. This resulted in the transfer of sensitive research to authoritarian regimes and their militaries and threats to the safety of domestic and international students,” Paterson said.

“While efforts have been made to strengthen the sector’s awareness and resilience to these threats, there is a great deal more to do to secure sensitive, taxpayer-funded research, and protect students on campus.

“These bipartisan reforms build on the work already undertaken and I look forward to a continued, concerted effort by government and sector to combat these escalating threats.”


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