Australia dials back effort to control ‘dual use’ research

Scientists welcome the independent findings, saying sweeping controls of research that could have military use would have restricted collaborations.

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A student walks in the shadows of the Quadrangle arches at the University of Sydney

Universities and researchers say the review strikes the right balance between national security and international collaboration.Credit: Oliver Strewe/Getty

A review of Australian export laws has pushed back against the government’s effort to tighten controls on technologies and research that might have dual military and non-military uses. Australian researchers, who were concerned that sweeping controls would restrict collaborative research, have welcomed the findings.

Existing laws require academics working on ‘dual use’ research to apply for a Department of Defence permit before they communicate the work to anyone outside of Australia. But the department wanted those laws, introduced in 2012 and amended in 2015, strengthened to reflect changes in national security risk since then.

In a submission to a review of the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012, conducted by independent consultant and intelligence specialist Vivienne Thom, the defence department called for expanded powers to control the transfer of any technologies significant to defence, even those not on the existing list of controlled technologies. It also pushed to control publication of papers related to these technologies.

Australia is one of several countries considering controls on international research collaborations. The US government recently announced restrictions on some foreign research partnerships to reduce intellectual property theft.

In her report, Thom recommends that the government work with universities, research agencies and industry to ensure any amendments to the laws do not unnecessarily restrict trade, research and international collaboration, and “limit additional uncertainty, complexity and risk of inadvertent breaches”.

The review strikes a balance between Australia’s international trade and security obligations and the needs of researchers to engage with partners around the world, said John Shine, the president of the Australian Academy of Science in a statement.

“Further restrictions would effectively have limited Australian researchers’ ability to engage in international research collaboration and to benefit as a nation from the many international research collaborations and expertise on which a substantial proportion of our economy relies," Shine said.

The defence department says it supports the review’s recommendations.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00606-y
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