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Late last year, a PhD student named Yuekang Li was refused a study visa to enter Canada. Why? Canada’s Federal Court was concerned he could be “targeted and coerced into providing information that would be detrimental to Canada”.

Li wasn’t the only one. Earlier this month, Iranian computer engineering student Reza Jahantigh was denied a visa to study his PhD in Canada, because of his previous service in the Iranian military. Some observers have called the decisions “deeply unhelpful”, and said they risked the prospects of future international students coming to Canada.

Despite such criticisms, Canada is at the forefront of an international charge for stricter “research security” – the idea of protecting certain university courses and research programs from espionage, foreign interference and technology theft.

While countries including the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are moving swiftly to make their research more secure, Australia lags behind. And our need for research security is only set to grow.

Rules around the world

In the US, applicants for federal funding must comply with strict guidelines on disclosing both local and foreign partners. Canada has banned research collaborations with foreign entities connected with Chinese, Russian or Iranian military or intelligence agencies.

The UK even funds specific university research into how they secure their work. The Netherlands, a world leader with its own brand of “knowledge security”, has even proposed a controversial law to security-screen every foreign researcher, irrespective of their home country.

What is Australia doing?

In Australia, research security is a contentious topic. We don’t recognise the term, we don’t really talk about it, and it doesn’t appear in parliamentary press releases. But there are real threats to our universities.

A parliamentary inquiry in 2022 heard stories of coercion, suppression and foreign interference on almost every Australian campus. Two years on, almost none of the inquiry’s recommendations have been completely adopted.

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Last year, my colleagues and I found Australia has more than 3,000 research agreements with China, some of which might pose significant security risks. Only a few months ago, the Five Eyes – composed of the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – called China an “unprecedented threat” to innovative research around the world.

We should be worried. Under the AUKUS agreement, Australia is about to receive some of the most closely guarded military secrets in the world courtesy of the US – nuclear-powered submarines.

After that, we will be sharing breakthroughs in military technologies such as robotics, hypersonic missiles and quantum computers. The government has even allocated thousands of new university positions to support AUKUS.

Some action, but not enough

But what Australia hasn’t done is take a really good look at what needs to be done to keep those secrets safe.

We aren’t completely defenceless. ASIO has published a booklet called Collaborate with Care, which gives researchers tips on how to ensure their research isn’t compromised. And one of Australia’s biggest funding bodies, the Australian Research Council, recently published its Countering Foreign Interference Framework.

But the steps outlined in those publications are all voluntary, and pale in comparison with our international allies. So, what will it take for Australia to reconsider its position on research security?

Does Australia need a scandal?

Put simply, Australia seems to need a proper research security scandal in one of its universities.

The US has a long history of research security scandals. One of the worst was the alleged theft of “military grade meta-materials” by Chinese entrepreneur and one-time graduate student Ruopeng Liu from Duke University in 2009.

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In 2018, Hao Zhang – a professor at China’s Tianjin University – was arrested (and later convicted) for stealing semiconductor technology from US businesses. And in 2021, Harvard professor Charles Lieber – once considered a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – was convicted of fraud for lying about payments he received to be a “strategic scientist” for foreign universities.

Canada too has had its scandals. In 2021, doctors Xiangguo Qiu and Keding Cheng were fired by Canada’s National Microbiology Lab and lost their security clearances for allegedly sharing virus samples with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And in 2023, Norwegian officials arrested a Russian intelligence agent named Mikhail Mikushin, who had posed for years as a Canadian university academic.

Close calls

In Australia, we’ve come close. Just two years ago, the ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess told the Five Eyes his agency had expelled a visiting professor who had been given “money and a shopping list of intelligence requirements” by Chinese intelligence. Then, last year, ASIO warned that foreign intelligence agents have been told to “aggressively seek” and steal AUKUS secrets from Australia.

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So perhaps we should act now, before we get a scandal to spur us into action.

We could be having open, honest and frank discussions between universities and our intelligence services. We could be crafting a robust research security policy hand-in-hand between academia and government. We could be looking at what works around the world, analysing it, critiquing it, and seeing if it works here.

Otherwise, Australia stands to lose the very secrets we have just been entrusted to keep.

The Conversation

Brendan Walker-Munro does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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