Government deeds not words: research culture under attack

Ministers are not explicitly criticising universities but the very basis of research and international academic exchange is under threat

The last couple of weeks in Canberra could have been worse for the research community. But then the government introduced a bill to oversight connections with foreign governments by the states and “associated entities” – which includes universities.

Late Friday Universities Australia warned the bill gave the minister for foreign affairs, “the power to monitor or cancel international agreements.”

Perhaps universities are not the government’s primary focus, but as UA CEO Catriona Jackson puts it, “now that we have seen the detail of the legislation, we hold grave concerns regarding the effect the laws may have on research collaboration, which is the lifeblood of knowledge and job creation.”

The bill requires organisations covered to get approval from the minister before starting a negotiation, including MOUs with any part which is legally binding. They will also need a tick to vary a pre-existing arrangement and must advise the feds of all already existing.

As UA puts it, “tens of thousands of research projects may be within scope.”

The bill will go the Senate’s foreign affairs and related legislation committee, which is due to report on November 5.

It follows peak science lobbies giving evidence to a Senate committee hearing on the impact of farming on the Great Barrier Reef feeling obliged to call for respect for research and science . And the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security is to inquire into “foreign interference” in universities. (CMM September 1).

This is all very bad news indeed for universities used to presenting themselves as a force for good but denied the resources they need by short-sighted governments.

While ministers are not explicitly attacking universities, the very basis of research and international academic exchange are being questioned – as if oversight is required to check researchers act in the national interest.