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UK warns universities about research threat from foreign states

UK warns universities about research threat from foreign states
The Clarendon building, right, stands next to the Shedonian theatre, both part of Oxford University, in Oxford, U.K., on Wednesday, 27 May 2020. (Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Foreign states are using UK universities to “steal advantage” by covertly acquiring British intellectual property, the government warned, saying it would explore proposals to protect cutting-edge research and technology.

After an internal review found other countries are targeting sensitive academic work, the UK will consult on measures to protect the British higher education sector from foreign threats, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said late on Thursday. It followed a meeting in which leaders of 24 universities — including Oxford and Cambridge — were briefed by the chiefs of the UK Security Service, MI5, and the National Cyber Security Centre.

The consultation will “explore proposals to protect cutting-edge technology under development in sensitive sectors that are being targeted by states stealing intellectual property to enhance their own economic and military capabilities,” the government said in a statement. It “will also consider measures to prevent institutions becoming dependent on foreign investment”.

While the government didn’t name any countries in its statement, concern in Britain has focused increasingly on Chinese funding of British university programs as well as the growing number of students from the Asian nation studying in the UK. Last year, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned about Chinese interference and influence.

“There are obvious and repeated examples of Chinese attempts to interfere and stifle debate amongst the academic community in the UK,” the committee said. “The UK’s academic institutions provide a rich feeding ground for China to achieve political influence in the UK and economic advantage over the UK.”

Meanwhile, in a chapter on China in last year’s integrated review of security and defense policy, the government promised ministers would “increase protections for academic freedom and university research.” 

The government said the consultation later this summer will look at:

  • Requiring key university personnel to undergo security clearance
  • Seeking greater transparency about funding and its origins
  • Enhancing security around research in universities

“This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions,” Dowden said.

Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan, who co-hosted the meeting with universities and security chiefs, said the government intends to give universities the “tools they need to keep themselves safe.”

“Maintaining the UK’s world-leading reputation as an academic superpower relies on having strong safeguards to protect research from those who wish to do us harm,” she said.

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