Australia revises export law that could have hit global research collaboration

28 Mar 2024 | News

Australian universities are relieved that a law to boost defence technology with the UK and US has had crucial exemptions added. But the opposition Greens still say it will hit research partnerships

The Australian Parliament. Photo credits: Neale Cousland / BigStock

A controversial technology export law has passed the Australian Parliament after being amended to better exempt basic and applied public research, relieving universities who worried it could hit their global research collaborations, including in Europe.

The Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill 2024 passed on 27 March after months of lobbying from universities.

It’s designed to make it much easier for Australia to collaborate with the UK and US on defence technology, part of the AUKUS security partnership announced in 2021.

But the flipside is that it introduces three new imprisonable offences that critics feared could seriously hinder research with other countries, including in Europe. Scientists had worried it could prohibit free discussion at international conferences, and force researchers in Australian labs from outside AUKUS countries to seek permits.

But the final act “successfully walks a finely balanced tightrope of ensuring national security whilst at the same time guaranteeing that ever important international research collaboration is not compromised,” said Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight large research universities.

However, the opposition Greens in Parliament still believe the act will damage Australian research relationships outside of the UK and US.

“It's an act of collective destruction, particularly against Australia's scientific community, and it's designed to wall off the Australian scientific and research community from the great bulk of global science and research,” said David Shoebridge, a Greens senator in a parliamentary debate on 25 March.

Fundamental research exemption

One of the key concessions universities managed to wring from the government was an exemption for “fundamental research” directly in the act.

This is broader than it sounds – it actually covers both “basic or applied research” where the results are intended to be shared publicly, and aren’t subject to security or defence restrictions.

“Enshrining the fundamental research exemption in legislation provides scientists with more confidence that the definition can’t be changed on a whim and that they won’t be at risk of breaking the law by undertaking discovery research, simply speaking at a conference, teaching a PhD student, or collaborating with a colleague,” said Chennupati Jagadish, president of the Australian Academy of Science in a statement.

Existing research will also be grandfathered in – that is, subject to the old rules – for a year. The new rules will also be reviewed after three years.

Relevant for the EU is another amendment that allows the Australian government to add new countries to a list whose nationals are not prohibited from receiving dual use technology when in Australia.

Most EU member states are already on the so-called Foreign Country List, but the Baltic states, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia are not. Australian universities had raised concerns that key research partners, such as India, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia, were not on the list.

The new act means that they can now be added by the Australian government, rather than having to change the legislation.

“We will continue to work with the Australian Government and Department of Defence as it implements the forthcoming reforms, including making additions to the Foreign Country List to maintain meaningful collaborations around the world, including the European Union,” said Jagadish in a statement to Science|Business.

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