The federal government plan to crackdown on foreign research collaboration on emerging technologies is a “dangerous development” that risks holding back burgeoning sectors such as artificial intelligence, UNSW Professor of AI Toby Walsh says.
The government is planning to subject a list of critical and emerging technologies to restrictions on foreign research collaboration, and they will be screened in the same way that military and dual-use technology research currently is.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is conducting an inquiry into the national security risks affecting Australian universities and the research sector. It has heard that security agencies are set to provide universities with an expanded list of emerging technologies that they will aim to protect from foreign interference.
ASIO boss Mike Burgess told the committee it would be “helpful and useful if there was greater clarity for what kinds of research and sensitive technology that needs protection”.
“It would provide universities with greater certainty about the areas where they need to be cautious, including when engaging with foreign institutions,” Mr Burgess said.
“It would give publicly funded research agencies, universities and other organisations more surety when applying for research grants in sensitive areas and it would mean that students and academics have a clear sense of how they can express their freedom without inadvertently undermining Australia’s national interest.”
It has been reported that the Department of Home Affairs and ASIO are working on a list of emerging technologies, under direction of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
But Professor Walsh said the government’s response to the legitimate concerns around foreign influence in Australian universities is “far too heavy-handed and blunt”.
“There’s a dangerous and unpleasant taste of xenophobia in Australian politics, and this knee-jerk response feeds into this. I’ve heard that the government would like all of AI to be an emerging technology subject to restrictions,” Professor Walsh told InnovationAus.
“This would be absurd and would hold back responsible innovation that will bring vital economic growth needed for Australia to emerge out of the COVID recession.”
Universities should “defend their independence more vigorously,” Professor Walsh said.
“It surprises me that universities are not pushing back on this harder. It speaks to the poor relationships between government and the academy that they are not,” he said.
“Along with the debate about free speech, it appears the government wishes to meddle in the affairs of universities more and more. This is a dangerous development.”
University of Sydney Quantum Control Laboratory director and Q-CTRL founder Professor Michael Biercuk said the industry is willing to work with the government with the existing mechanisms, but new restrictions could lead to scientists and entrepreneurs leaving the country.
“Governments in the UK, Canada, US and Europe are all actively recruiting scientists and researchers to join their open efforts in areas of emerging technology, and we should not make the mistake of assuming that Australia’s best and brightest will simply accept growing restrictions – without the provision of clear alternatives to advance their research – when other options exist,” Professor Biercuk told InnovationAus.
“There is an existing export controls regime which limits so-called ‘intangible transfers’ of highly sensitive information on weapons systems or certain dual use technologies, and Australia has a process to add new and emerging technologies to that list.
“The entire research community is looking to government to use the existing processes at its disposal as a means to simplify and boost compliance.”
There is a fundamental misunderstanding around the perceived secrecy around university research, Professor Biercuk said.
“A core area of confusion seems to exist around what kind of work university researchers perform overall. Concern over IP theft is real in corporate settings where trade settings where trade secrets are a core part of preserving competitive advantage, or in national labs like the CSIRO where highly confidential information may be handled,” he said.
“By contrast, university research is openly published for anyone to read and learn from. Even research that is patented is published in a globally accessible IP register – it is not kept secret.
“So when we talk about theft of IP in the context of universities I constantly scratch my head wondering where all of this super-secret IP is.”
The PJCIS is expected to hand its report to the government in July.