A potential federal government crackdown on open research and foreign collaboration in Australian universities could have a “cataclysmic” impact of emerging industries like quantum computing, Q-CTRL founder Michael Biercuk said.
At a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday afternoon, education minister Dan Tehan announced the establishment of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce.
The taskforce, comprising representatives from universities and government, would have the mission of combatting overseas interference and cybersecurity threats on university campuses, in the wake of growing concerns over overseas research partnerships.
The government says it plans to protect public research and sensitive data from “unauthorised access, manipulation, disruption or damage”, and is said to be particularly concerned with overseas collaboration in areas including artificial intelligence, quantum physics and engineering.
“We need to step through with the university sector, we need greater collaboration between our agencies and the sector, so we identify what are the protections universities need to put in place to keep this information secure,” Mr Tehan said.
“Whether it is particular areas that we quarantine or whether there is a system across the board which makes sure that we’ve got the proper protections put in place for whatever research is taking place, that’s something this taskforce will investigate and report back to government and the sector on by November.”
But Professor Biercuk, whose quantum computing company Q-CTRL was spun out of research at the University of Sydney, said a government crackdown on open research at universities could stifle the growth of burgeoning new industries.
“If the government proposes that foreign nationals are not allowed to participate in research in certain areas, [then] that would be cataclysmic for our research. We leverage open scientific results and use those to build products and services of high values,” Professor Biercuk told InnovationAus.com.
“If quantum computing is in some way quarantined, then our ability to engage with foreigners will be seriously limited. As an export organisation that would also be cataclysmic to us,” he said.
“We need to ensure that a new industry which promised tremendous economic prosperity is not lopped off at the knees before it gets the chance to grow.”
It’s important the rules and framework around any potential limits to foreign collaboration on research is laid out clearly in legislation, Professor Biercuk said.
“Attempting to limit academic collaboration in science is counter-productive. From a business perspective, having a rigorous and transparent legislative framework for any controls is essential,” he said.
“My company exists to drive economic prosperity in Australia because my university pursued open research in quantum physics when others weren’t, and almost all the money came from foreign sources, not the Australian government.”
Mr Tehan said a balance needs to be struck between Australia’s national interest and the need for universities to be free to pursue research. The foreign interference taskforce will include a cybersecurity working group and a research and IP working group.
But the government’s announcement of the taskforce and approach to university research displays a lack of understanding of how it actually works, Professor Biercuk said.
“The discussion about foreign interference in terms of intellectual property theft fails to recognise how universities operate. We’ve put everything out in the open – results, raw data and code. The risks associated with any kind of technology transfer or IP theft are effectively zero,” he said.
“Open research is so essential to the kinds of activities now undertaken by Q-CTRL.”
It’s also concerning that no members of the tech community have been included in the government’s taskforce, he said.
“It’s essential to see that parts of the tech sector are integrated into the discussion. I note the taskforce has representatives from government and universities but no industry representatives to show, for instance, how university open research impacts our work,” Professor Biercuk.
Professor Biercuk has a clear message for the government: “openness is in the national interest.”
“My main message is openness in university research is essential for universities and for economic prosperity that flows out of this spin-off and other deep technology businesses emerging from that research. It’s not national interest versus openness,” he said.