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Go8 Submission: Review of the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012

The Group of Eight (Go8) welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Review of the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 (DTC Act), on behalf of its members who may also make individual submissions.

The Go8 represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, accounting for over two-thirds of Australian university research activity, spending around $6 billion per year on research with the Go8 investing $3.2 billion annually in applied research and experimental development. Go8 research has resulted in significant innovations with social, economic and health applications, some of which have attracted the need to consider compliance with the DTC Act.

The Go8 wishes to make the following points in response to the Review, noting that our input pertains chiefly to the impact of the DTC Act on research activity, rather than commenting on how its operation addresses or otherwise current and future national security requirements.

Broadly, the DTC Act is regarded as operating well. However, this state of play relies unquestionably on the expert support provided from the Department of Defence to researchers and research institutions to help them understand, navigate and comply with the provisions of the Act, and the corresponding mechanisms established within institutions to ensure compliance issues or concerns are effectively addressed. Nor does it preclude the possibility of unforeseen and unwanted circumstances arising, however remote these may currently seem.

  • Feedback received from our members indicates that Go8 researchers have largely been able to work effectively within the provisions of the DTC Act. This has been significantly assisted by the expert function provided by the Department of Defence to support the operation of the Act, through the Defence Exports Controls Office (DECO).
  • The framework established following the amendment of the DTC Act in 2015 is seen to be clear and effective. This reflects the significant work and consultation undertaken in the lead up to the 2015 Amendment Act and related measures to ensure that Australia’s international research collaboration effort could continue effectively within the provisions of the DTC Act.
    • It also reflects the proactive work undertaken within universities to ensure compliance with the Act, whether these be internal policies, procedures and management mechanisms (such as dedicated sub-committees and resources), or specialised training sessions to support researchers and others.

Areas of DECO’s function commended by our members include: the turnaround timeframes regarding whether export permits are required; the collaborative relationships that have been built between DECO and university areas responsible for ensuring compliance; continued engagement via the Defence Export Controls Working Group; and the generally prompt response by DECO to queries.

  • The Department’s willingness to work with our universities to develop solutions and ease of implementation is also welcomed. An example is the Department’s work with the University of Melbourne on the development of two-step trial permits for information security and cryptographic research.

Some cautions have been expressed by our members.

  • The Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL) being technically challenging – due to the complexity of establishing which actual goods or technology may or may not be controlled – means the continued diligence of DECO in advising and supporting affected stakeholders is essential. This is particularly so given new knowledge and research is constantly emerging.
    • It is implied that DECO’s knowledge and capability is not transferrable nor can be delegated to the expert administrators in our universities
  • Any tightening of controls would compromise how well Australia can engage in international knowledge exchange for valid, positively impactful ways.
  • On rare occasions, the longer processing time for more complicated permits may affect the ability of our universities to enter research contracts within preferred timeframes.
  • In relation to the exemption of ‘basic scientific research’[1] from the DSGL, there is room to extend the definition or parameters of what can be exempted[2].

Go8 would strongly recommend:

  • The retention of the critically important function at the Department of Defence provided by the Defence Export Controls Office to assist researchers and administrators;
  • Continued strong engagement by the Department of Defence and the Government with the research sector, to ensure ongoing effectiveness of implementation and operation – including consultation as necessary around fresh solutions, specific issues or unforeseen circumstances;
  • Continued evaluation by the Government on a semi-regular basis of the operation of the DTC Act, to ensure visibility and addressing of issues within a reasonable timeframe of these emerging;
  • That the Review examine what is considered ‘basic scientific research’ for the purpose of the exemption from the DSGL and whether the parameters can be broadened beyond the current application, including to facilitate communication with international collaborators in the early stages of research.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide input to this important Review. I can be contacted at chief.executive@go8.edu.au or on (02) 6175 0700 should you wish to discuss this submission.

Yours sincerely

VICKI THOMSON
CHIEF EXECUTIVE

[1] The DSGL exemptions note ‘any technology which extends only to the “fundamental principles of phenomena or observable facts”, and is “not primarily directed towards a specific practical aim or objective”, falls within the definition of basic scientific research, and would therefore not be controlled.’

[2] Two examples that can be referred to in this context are the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) definition of ‘fundamental research’ as ‘basic and applied research in science and engineering, the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community, as distinguished from proprietary research and from Industrial development, design, production, and product utilization, the results of which ordinarily are restricted for proprietary or national security reason’ and the United Kingdom Export Control Act (2002) explicit protection of communication of information in the ordinary course of scientific research.