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In the media: Universities warn foreign interference measures must be ‘carefully calibrated’

Lisa Visentin – The Sydney Morning Herald – December 21 2020

Australia’s elite research universities have warned that partnerships with Chinese institutions, including those which have led to world-leading research developments, could be jeopardised if the Morrison government fails to carefully calibrate foreign interference measures.

The Group of Eight, which represents the eight universities that account for 70 per cent of academic research, says the collaboration of University of Sydney professor Edward Holmes in the first genome sequencing of COVID-19 – a project involving a consortium of Chinese universities and institutions – is a key example of research that “might not have occurred” under stricter policy settings.

It also highlighted as another example the work of Monash University Professor Paul Zimmet AO in an international team, which included Peking University Professor Linong Ji, that found that elderly people with diabetes who contracted COVID-19 faced a much higher risk of dying.

The examples were detailed in a submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into national security risks affecting the higher education and research sector.

In their most wide-ranging comments on the proposed changes so far, the organisation said the risks “must be managed effectively” but argued this required “nuance, care and balance” to ensure it did not cause unnecessary damage to research partnerships.

“The Go8 also recognises the risks to our nation’s economic and societal future if Australia as a nation, with the best of intent, over-reacts and damages the open democratic exchange that… enriches our country and our society,” the submission said.

The submission noted that Group of Eight universities, which include the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University, conducted “far more research” with the European Union (34 per cent), United States (23 per cent) and United Kingdom (17 per cent), than with China (13 per cent).

It also used the submission to urge caution in managing China’s Thousand Talents program so that “dealing with security risks does not descend into unnecessary mistrust of individuals.”

“The real issue with the Thousand Talents program is not that the program exists, nor that it has members within Australian universities, but whether an association with the program has been appropriately declared,” the submission said.

The Thousand Talents program is a Chinese government-initiative which uses financial scholarships to recruit top scientific talent for research projects, but has been the identified by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation as a potential means of economic espionage.

At the request of the Morrison government in September, Parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee launched an inquiry following reports in The Australian newspaper which named 30 Australian academics who had participated in the program.

The Group of Eight’s submission said China was “not alone in developing international talent programs”, and pointed to Australia’s Global Talent Independent Program, run by the Department of Home Affairs, which is designed to “attract the best and brightest to help create a more prosperous Australia”.

Liberal senator James Paterson, one of the backbenchers who pushed the government to launch the inquiry, said it was necessary in light of a recent string of “disturbing events” at universities.

“The Drew Pavlou affair at the University of Queensland, the Elaine Pearson incident at UNSW, inadequate agreements with Confucius Institutes at many universities, questionable deals with foreign state-owned enterprises and revelations researchers were participating in the Thousand Talents programs without full knowledge of their employers all indicate a serious, sector wide problem warranting further investigation,” Senator Paterson said.

The Group of Eight submission argued that it has “always undertaken significant and appropriate due diligence” and pointed to the fact that it was a foundation member of the Universities’ Foreign Interference Taskforce, which brings together universities, security agencies and government departments.