University takes lead in pushing for change to national security legislation

22 March 2012

Four University of Sydney researchers appeared before a parliamentary committee in Canberra last night to explain why a draft bill that proposes increased controls over trade in potentially dangerous goods and technologies could have unintended negative impacts for teaching and research in Australian universities.

The draft bill, the Defence Trade Controls Bill 2011 (Cth) has passed through the House of Representatives and is now being considered by the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee.

As drafted, the bill regulates the supply of intangible matters and the provision of services related to items and materials on a 'defence controls list' (but also used in academic teaching and research) to 'foreign persons'. International research collaborations and the education of overseas students could therefore be restricted.

Following two written submissions prepared by the University of Sydney in close collaboration with Universities Australia, the committee invited Sydney academics to Canberra in order to better understand the likely impact of the bill on university education and research.

"While we fully support the importance of safeguarding national and international security by minimising the risk of dangerous goods, technology or related information falling into the wrong hands, we were concerned that as currently drafted the legislation would be likely to hinder the ability of academic staff in Australian universities to pursue normal teaching and research activities," said Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Jill Trewhella, who led the University delegation to appear before the Senate committee.

"We were impressed by the interest shown by the committee in understanding our concerns about the unintended consequences of the legislation, and are delighted that we have now been asked to work closely with the Department of Defence and Universities Australia to find workable solutions. I expect those negotiations will commence within the next week," Professor Trewhella said.

At the request of the committee three academics, Professor Graham Mann (Sydney Medical School), Professor John Canning (School of Chemistry) and Dr Michael Biercuk (School of Physics), provided practical examples of how the bill could negatively affect their research activities (available through the committee's website). Given the committee's tight timeframe for producing its report, the University of Sydney is likely to be the only university that provides oral evidence to the committee.

Professor Mann, Professor Canning and Dr Biercuk elaborated on their written evidence at a late-night hearing at Australian Parliament House yesterday, while Professor Trewhella spoke about her experience dealing with a wide range of national security and research issues during her 20 years in the United States working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"It is important the bill strikes an appropriate balance between preventing the misuse of sensitive technology in the interests of national security, and allowing Australian university education and research to prosper," said Professor Trewhella. "It was a terrific response from our staff to put together the team that went to Canberra last night at such short notice to achieve an important outcome that we expect will ensure the public policy intent of this important legislation is served without impeding legitimate academic research and teaching."

Read more about the University's engagement with this process on our Government and higher education website.