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Tighter Defence ties will bind academics and stifle innovation



10 October 2012

When our politicians line up for pictures with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her visit next month few Australians will be aware of the potential cost of that photo opportunity.

With each handshake our research enterprise - Australia's engine of innovation - will be strangled. Our researchers may have lost their ability to freely conduct public-good research and communicate research results - simply because legislation important to the US-Australia defence trade was rushed before Clinton's visit, rather than considered with enough time to find a solution to protect against its unintended consequences.

This legislation could mean a conference speech, publication of a scientific paper or sending an email to colleagues could require a Defence permit or become a serious crime.

What is scary is that because few Australians are engaged with this complex, technical legislation - let's face it, anything called the Defence Trade Control Bill will not make the six o'clock news - this was able to happen. What is maddening is that in our rush, Australia will potentially not have legislated comparable safeguards to protect public-good research that Americans have.

The purpose of the bill before the Senate is to give effect to the 2007 Australia-United States Defence Trade Co-operation Treaty which aims to reduce administrative burdens that have hampered the Australian-US defence trade.

However, while the bill reduces the burden of export controls for Defence, it introduces new and potentially stifling export controls on all other sectors, with serious potential consequences for universities.

New controls on intangible transfers mean research activities that could result in the communication of information regarding the development, use or production of a broad range of technologies used in ordinary research would require review by, and permission from, the Department of Defence. The bill could even criminalise publication of data or information relating to these technologies.

This is likely to restrict researchers from communicating critical information to scientists abroad to prevent pandemic flu outbreaks. It would impede top scientists in developing technologies for tomorrow's high-tech manufacturing industries, new vaccines and potential cures for cancer. The Australian government worries about a brain drain in advanced technology, but is poised to pass legislation that could force our best and brightest offshore.

US researchers in accredited higher education institutions enjoy broad exclusions from export control relating to intangible transfers of dual-use technology for basic or applied research.

However, Defence will impose far more restrictive controls on researchers, disadvantaging them compared with their US peers, especially given the relative importance of international collaboration to Australia.

The legislation gives unprecedented authority to one department to decide what research can be communicated and to whom and given the bill covers technologies with military and civilian applications, Defence is alarmingly unqualified for the task.

The failure of Defence to consult adequately has prompted very recent rushed meetings in which there has been pressure to agree to a trial period of the legislation, rather than amend it. During this two-year trial academics will not be prosecuted for breaches, but this still will not protect them and institutions from overwhelming administrative burdens and an expensive, lengthy permit process.

Consider a renowned University of Sydney physicist, whose quantum technology research, with applications for computing and development of green-energy sector materials, is not excluded from proposed regulations. He estimates 20 percent of the equipment he purchases and uses in experiments will be affected and he might spend a quarter of his research time reviewing, assessing, seeking legal advice, applying for, or waiting for, permits. Stay in Australia? This burden just might force him to return to the US.

The University of Sydney has just obtained independent legal advice showing Australian researchers will be at a comparative disadvantage to US peers if this legislation passes.

We must demand it be amended to ensure Australian researchers are not subject to greater restrictions than US colleagues. If there are compelling national interest reasons to rush legislation then a simple amendment to the bill excluding open scientific research is required. Anything less will prove dangerous to Australian research and innovation.


Professor Jill Trewhella is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney. Read more about research.


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Media enquiries: Sarah Stock, 9114 0748, 0419 278 715, sarah.stock@sydney.edu.au