What are the dangers of collaborating with knowledge institutions in other countries? “This is something every academic discipline has to deal with”, Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf said earlier this week at the presentation of a new knowledge security service desk.
Researchers are keen to establish working relationships with their colleagues across the world. Science is a highly international field. Dijkgraaf himself is a perfect example: before becoming the new education minister he was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
But collaboration is not without its risks. Unwanted knowledge transfer and covert influencing can take place in all sorts of ways, the government believes. Higher education and research need to be aware of what is at stake.
At an online meeting, Dijkgraaf talked about walking a narrow path between “two ditches”. On the one hand, the pitfalls of “naively throwing the doors open wide” and on the other hand, the negative impact of “sealing everything tight until there is no room to breathe”.
The world is changing, the minister says. “The path will probably get narrower and narrower”, and many people are aware of this. “This is part and parcel of research and higher education in 2022. There are so many different dimensions involved. And it’s something every academic discipline has to deal with.”
A special guide has been published to help academics make decisions about collaborating with countries such as Russia, China and Iran. And with it comes a knowledge security service desk, which researchers and administrators can consult for advice.
The new fifty-page guide not only deals with issues of national security, cybersecurity and recruitment of researchers, but also looks at the role played by ethics. How do you collaborate with countries where human rights are not respected?
China is barely mentioned in the guide. The only major reference is to the China Defence University Tracker, which identifies universities with links to the Chinese military. Less than a year ago, university magazine Delta published an article that caused quite a stir: “How TU Delft unintentionally helps the Chinese army”.
Ultimately, the government has faith in self-regulation, which means it will be up to the institutions themselves to make sensible choices. And Dijkgraaf recommends taking a measured approach: “Knowledge security measures must not be ‘excessive’ and lead to exclusion, insinuation or discrimination.”
If the institutions find it hard to strike a balance, the service desk is there to help them. “But the service desk doesn’t have all the answers, it isn’t an oracle”, Dijkgraaf pointed out, adding: “This is an interim step; everything is fluid. It is a learning organisation.”
The service desk is part of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. Simple queries are expected to take around three days to answer, while more complex questions will take a bit longer.
The higher education institutions were among the contributors to the guide, along with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Dutch Research Council. Various ministries and government departments also provided input.