Group of Eight universities concede to ASIO, restrict vital research engagement with China

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Economy & Markets

China is provoking every country in its region. But that is no reason to cut off all contact, including scientific engagement, especially if we want to avoid war. Brian Toohey investigates another sphere in which academic freedom is being restricted by government.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, aided and abetted by the nation’s universities, is attacking core scholarly values that stress the importance of sharing research without government censorship.

The “Group of Eight”, the body that represents the leading research universities, made a contradictory submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) last December.

The submission begins by boasting that the Go8 has a beneficial working relationship with Australia’s security agencies and that it was instrumental in implementing the University Foreign Interference Taskforce guidelines. These are seen as an “exemplar by the Five Eyes Plus group of nations and their leading research-intensive universities”, the submission notes.

However, the Go8’s submission also goes on to acknowledge that international collaboration, “known as research without borders”, is the foundation of most of the world’s major research breakthroughs.

“This enables the best minds in each field to collaborate, regardless of nationality or location, in the pursuit of common goals – delivering the best research to solve global problems such as food and water security.”

Yet Australia’s universities have effectively agreed with ASIO to restrict research collaboration with China, which now has largest number of citations in scientific articles in the world.

The Go8’s submission states with pride that between 2015 and 2019, its members’ co-publications with China comprised just 13 per cent of their total output compared to 23 per cent for the US. The submission added that in sensitive areas, such as materials science, “Australia produced far fewer co-publications with China than did the US”.

This is nothing to celebrate. It demonstrates that if Australia wants to improve the scale and quality of its science output it needs to increase its co-authored publications with China.

Red herrings

It has also been alleged that the presence of foreigners in Australian universities raises concerns that they might pass on information to foreign agents. Given that university research should always be destined for the public domain,­ such a claim is surely a red herring. Classifying research because of commercial or security considerations undermines the potential gains from open distribution of research.

In another contradiction, the G8’s submission says that in 2019, foreign nationals comprised a significant proportion of doctoral researchers in the fields of engineering (62%), Information Technology (59%), agriculture, environmental studies (47%) and the natural and physical sciences (44%). “If Australia was to cut off this supply of talent, we risk severely curtailing our capacity to compete in the very areas we are likely to rely on to boost our economy in the coming years.”

Again, surely this would lead to the obvious conclusion that universities should refuse to let governments and security agencies interfere to stop this supply of talent.

Wild claims of disloyalty

Unfortunately, at a time of growing animosity in Australia towards people of Asian appearance, the ability to attract high-quality foreign researchers and academics will further decline when wild claims are made about the disloyalty of scientists working in Australia who have a Chinese background.

Consider Clive Hamilton’s claim in Silent Invasion that the presence of Chinese-born scientists in the CSIRO makes “it fair to assume that the results of every piece of scientific research carried out by the CSIRO becomes available free of charge in China”. This is patent scare mongering. Because the CSIRO is a public research institute, almost all its output is published in the public domain. This means it will be available to every country, not just China.

Meanwhile, a March 2021 submission from a broader lobby group representing 39 universities, called Universities Australia, starts off impeccably by saying”

“Global engagement allows universities to educate Australia’s future generations alongside the world’s best students, and enable our world-class researchers to collaborate with their peers worldwide in making cutting edge breakthroughs.”

The submission similarly then goes down a contradictory route, genuflecting at the altar of national security. The submission says it accepts that research and technology expertise “is a high value target for foreign interference”.

However, such concerns shouldn’t stop the open dissemination of all university research. Just because an intelligence agency says something is a risk doesn’t make it automatically true. There are numerous examples of where intelligence assessments developed in secrecy have proven to be false. The nonsense masquerading as intelligence in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is just one example.

The renowned physicist Edward Teller set the benchmark for rejecting censorship. Although considered the fiercest nuclear hawk of his generation in the 1940s and 50s, Teller was an outspoken opponent of government attempts to impose secrecy on scientific research, including nuclear weapons research.

He told a congressional committee in 1974:

“Modern science has developed in a spirit of openness that is antithetical to that of alchemistry. When the secrecy and mutual isolation of the alchemists was replaced by openness, this brought about the dawn of modern chemistry.”

He had earlier stated that classification could apply during the development, not the research phase, for weapons, followed by rapid declassification.

Academic freedom

ASIO’s head Mike Burgess told the PJCIS on March 11 that there had been 60 interactions between ASIO and universities in 2020. He added, “Addressing national security risks doesn’t need to come at the expense of academic freedom.”

Yet when security agencies block the release of research, that is exactly what happens.

Burgess, however, is more moderate than many in the media who criticised China’s Thousand Talents program for recruiting Australian scientists on good salaries. He said the program was “not concerning” and that it was a “natural extension of China’s strategic plan to be a world leader in technology”.

But the US, supported by some Australian politicians, is determined to stop China becoming the world’s leading high-tech country. If the US stops this by competition, that’s good, but much of the US emphasis is on increasing tariffs and stopping US companies selling software to China. Because trade is mutually beneficial, restricting trade only harms both countries.

Treasury input sidelined

Burgess told the committee that some “research and critical technologies need a protection”. In deciding which ones should be protected, he said the Home Affairs and Prime Minister’s department were drawing up a list, with input from other specified departments and agencies. Treasury didn’t get a mention.

Apparently, Treasury’s sin is that it spent decades stressing the gains available from an open, rather than a protected, economy. Sidelining Treasury and the Reserve Bank smacks of old-fashioned economic protectionism that can harm prosperity.

There may be a legitimate case for fostering Australia’s capability to make items such as vaccines and some military equipment locally. But making Australia more independent of risky supply chains will not be achieved if, as is happening with the Joint Strike Fighter program, US electronic equipment is installed in military equipment without Australians having access to computer source codes.

When he was prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said that China did not have the motive nor the capability to pose a military threat to Australia. Nothing has changed. Yes, China’s provocative statements and behaviour is antagonising every country in its region. But this is no reason to cut off all contact, including scientific engagement, especially if we want to avoid a horrific war.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey began his career in journalism as a political correspondent at the Australian Financial Review in 1973. He edited the National Times in the 1980s and has contributed to numerous publications. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

14 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Couldn’t disagree more. Can’t believe Toohey came up with this trash. Imagine using the same argument for Myanmar or Russia. Just ignore human rights abuses because we need open cooperation. Ridiculous. China is real and present threat both militarily and economically. Most research being conducted at universities is not about water and food security in any case. Research is aimed at making money for private investors and handing over technologies that ultimately enslave us.

    • Avatar

      but the reason they are stopping the collaboration isn’t related to the human rights abuses right? And how does stopping collaboration reduce the military/economic threat? It would only increase it would it not? And yes food/water research isn’t popular but there’s plenty of useful medical research between our countries. I don’t think isolating ourselves from China will improve the situation is my main point

    • Avatar

      China is real and present threat both militarily and economically.

      I wonder how China sees us ? After centuries of colonial interventions and South China sea demarcations; empire interference’s in general by the west; Opium wars, not to mention the 20 million that died at the hands of the Japanese during the second world war!

      An economic threat is that the economic threat that buys our Iron Ore and keeps us from going further down the drain than we already are!

  2. Avatar

    Unfortunately our government is willing to turn a blind eye to the most egregious human rights violations and war crimes. Think Israel.

  3. Avatar

    The hubris of the west has no bounds!

    The West cares little about its working class in their respective countries!

    The changes in the People’s Republic of China which opened Western capitalists, the capitalism of Western Europe, North America and Japan to an immense new working class, an immense hundreds of millions of people able and willing and eager to work as employees of capitalist companies.

    It changed the balance between the employer class concentrated industrial power in Western Europe, North America and Japan on the one hand and an increased in a mass of well-trained low paid workers. All that we have seen at least in the last half century has been the working out of this radical different situation; the capitalists have made an enormous amount of money basically by figuring out how to take advantage of this enormous new mass of poor but capable workers.

    Some capitalists did it by bringing in immigrants low-wage desperate immigrants to their own countries. Other capitalists did it in the reverse way move their production out of the old centers of capitalism into China India Brazil etc.

    Our workers were being dragged down to the level of the third world . We’re moving production into the hands of these third world workers.

    China provided the Labor and the land to the Western capitalists who were eager and they asked these western companies for something in return
    1. access to western markets with their goods produced domestically
    2. Allowing China access to research and development.

    The western capitalists were eager to oblige on both counts!

  4. Avatar

    I wonder if the amount of central control China imposes was a factor in this. It’s pretty well known at this point how much their government controls the flow of information, or the information itself (case in point Hong Kong). It is not a stretch to believe their research/numbers could also be getting doctored.

    Obviously scientific rigour and validity relies on reproducible results from a good method, which can easily be checked, however, most of our research is already separated by the language barrier – we aren’t comparing notes. Imagine the vault of knowledge we could unlock and share by reviewing the research of a country basically at superpower status if it turns out to be truly independent and valid! The only way we were getting insight into Chinese knowledge and expertise (and vice versa) was through these collaborative research projects. Now we’ll never know for sure.

  5. Avatar

    I wonder if the amount of central control China imposes was a factor in this. It’s pretty well known at this point how much their government controls the flow of information, or the information itself (case in point Hong Kong). It is not a stretch to believe their research/numbers could also be getting doctored.

    Obviously scientific rigour and validity relies on reproducible results from a good method, which can easily be checked, however, most of our research is already separated by the language barrier – we aren’t comparing notes. Imagine the vault of knowledge we could unlock and share by reviewing the research of a country basically at superpower status if it turns out to be truly independent and valid! The only way we were getting insight into Chinese knowledge and expertise (and vice versa) was through these collaborative research projects. Now we’ll never know for sure.

    • Avatar

      You seem to believe that Western Governments don’t control the flow of information. They suppress information and create disinformation through their patsys the mainstream media all the time. eg. Right at the moment they are goading Russia in a very dangerous attempt to get them to invade Ukraine. They have pulled out of the INF nuclear treaty so if NATO moves into Ukraine there will be nuclear missiles right on their border. If Russia moves into Ukraine to stop the murderous shelling of the Donbas Russia will be proclaimed as the bad guy and sanctioned etc.Are you aware of any of this. Why not? When does the media mention Julian Assange. Never. Why? When does the media mention Alexei Navalny? All the time. Why? Maybe the Chinese government is open and heavy handed in its suppression of information but perhaps covert information suppression is worse.

      • Avatar

        Certainly don’t at all deny Western governments control information too, but those governments won’t send you to a “re-education camp” for voicing facts or opinions that contradict the desired narrative. America just happens to be trying to find a legal loophole that will give them permission to “re-educate” Assange – as reported on MWM previously, a dangerous precedent.

        China is not the only country aggressively controlling news/stories but it has made them an easier target for local propaganda in Australia to incite the events of this article. My comment was a lament to the flow-on effects of our government fumbling international relations to the point where the pursuit of knowledge has also suffered a tremendous loss.

        Every nation will hide information, it is how a country reacts to that information being brought to light that says more about true freedom vs oppression. That said, Christian Porter is a blight on Australia…

  6. Avatar

    Excuse me! Opening sentence “China is provoking every country in its region” Since when ? China’s relationship with almost every country in its region has gone from strength to strength. It has prickly relations with Japan and all the more so as Japan is prodded along by a country NOT in its region – the USA. It has been truly supportive of every country in its region with the supply of essential goods in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. It is extremely supportive of national development in many nations with the Belt and Road framework for global trade. It has conceived and implemented the Asian Development Bank with an enormous welcome by its regional allies and neighbors.

    China is provoking no one. Sure there are hangover wrangles about inter-tidal rocks and sandbanks but that is true throughout the planet. If you just exclude the USA perpetual acts of belligerence from your equation you might just see the situation as being one of propagandised warmongering from the USA rather than your strawman allegation against China.

    Learn to get along with our Pacific Neighbors and set aside the BS from the USA – that is the way to develop Australia. Ignoring that will impoverish Aussies.

    • Avatar

      It cannot be understated that China is an economic standout in the region facilitating trade all over the Asia-Pacific, but we cannot qualify them as non-provocative especially after what they continue to do with Hong Kong and Taiwan.

      That said, I also agree and would prefer Australia acted more like South Korea maintaining relations with China and USA but ultimately making decisions purely in our own best interests. China wasn’t wrong calling us America’s lapdog and our economy will suffer greatly without them – imagine if they weren’t still taking our iron…

      • Avatar

        Hong Kong is China as is Taiwan. USA colour revolution gaming in HK is the real provocation. But I guess you are ok with orchestrated vengeful adolescents setting fire to people and parliaments just for fun and over exuberance.

        The nonsense prattle about Taiwan independence is a US empire fiction because they hate commies.
        The red army is not in either. What is China ‘continuing to do’ with their provinces?

        Focus your mind and escape the propaganda.

        Taiwan was ceded to China after the Japanese occupation was vanquished mid last century and before that was considered Chinese territory for some 400 years. The Dutch genocided the aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan 400 years ago to make way for ‘stability and a reliable port facility’ as part of its global empire building. The Chinese had been regular occupants/visitors for millennia given their superior naval capability.

  7. Avatar

    Had the UK universities been open and transparent in 1936-38 about their research into radar systems and remote sensing I’m sure we would all me talking something other than English now.

    Nope, controlling access to totalitarian states is always part of the game, the universities and intelligence services just need to be very selective on things that matter while still presenting a veneer of “openness” .
    It’s obvious the intent of the Confucius Centres strategically located next to the Political Sciences Department and we saw that in their intent to intimidate any dissent on the Hong Kong protests (Andrew Pavlou, UQ case).

    Foreign adversaries are targeted in their interests, so should we be.

  8. Avatar

    Toohey’s Old (so can be forgiven). The China Girl should have an L finger sign on her forehead. The CCP and the Deep State in the US are about on par for protecting their elites and committing travesties. Every dog has its day. When I was a schoolboy learning how Commodore Perry parked his warships off the coast of various Asian countries and delivered the diplomatic message ‘trade with us or else’, I found that just as outrageous as dredging and militarising new islands in the ‘South China Sea’. Who the hell gave that waterway its name anyway?

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