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Universities: Sensitive Research

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect sensitive research at universities from national security threats.

The Government are implementing a range of legislative and non-legislative measures, including the Research Collaboration Advice Team, which provides advice to academia on national security risks in international collaboration. The integrated review refresh committed to review the effectiveness of existing protections. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is leading this review, and the Deputy Prime Minister announced last week that the Government will consult on the response in the summer.

I am grateful to my noble friend, but are our universities not compromising their independence by becoming overreliant on China? Some 25% of the students, or 10,000, at UCL are Chinese, which risks the infiltration of academic research and, in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, coercion, exploitation and vulnerability. While I welcome the recent Statement, what steps will the Government take to replace lost Chinese funding for our universities, so that the UK remains at the forefront of technological research?

I thank my noble friend for the question. The first thing to say is that the independence of universities is absolutely critical to the quality of their research. While the integrated review refresh has of course indicated a great many concerns about working closely with China, and necessitated a reduction of academic collaboration with China, I hope our recent reassociation to the Horizon programme, and a number of other third countries also considering or being very close to associating with Horizon, will go some way towards providing a new pool of collaboration partners in academic research.

My Lords, I am sure that all of us agree with the noble Lord, Lord Young, that we need to protect scientific development from malign actors. But is there not a real problem here—that new technology and advances in scientific knowledge not only require international collaboration, on a scale hitherto unknown, but that most of it, ever since the bow and arrow, is dual-purpose? In other words, it can be used for benevolent or malign reasons. How do the departments charged with this responsibility distinguish between these two, so that in protecting us from the misuse of scientific advances, they are not smothering scientific research as a whole?

The noble Lord is absolutely right in his analysis of the problem, which I agree with wholeheartedly. The most powerful tool we have at our disposal in this is RCAT—the Research Collaboration Advice Team—which provides hundreds of individual items of advice in these areas, where it can actually be quite subtle whether something is dual or single-use or has a military or defence application. It is not something that can be very easily defined up front, and does require a certain wisdom and delicacy of advice to provide that.

My Lords, last week the Statement did not seem to say very much about which actors might be under consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Young, has already mentioned China, but do His Majesty’s Government also think that Iran and other countries might be a problem—not by giving funding, but by researchers and students coming? If that is the case, can His Majesty’s Government really expect universities to vet individuals? Is that not the role for government? I declare my interest as a professor at Cambridge.

The noble Baroness raises a very important point; it is not about naming one or more countries and targeting them. The non-legislative and legislative elements of the entire approach to this are about being actor agnostic, and simply looking at the cases as they arise.

My Lords, further to the points made by my noble friend, the Government said they are taking a range of measures, but if you take an area like biosecurity, which I am sure the Minister will agree is a very significant potential future threat, with people perhaps developing pathogens, aided possibly by using AI technology to do them more easily and quickly, is there not a case for mandatory surveillance over, for example, access to materials, which would indicate where somebody might be trying to do something that has that dual purpose—in other words, something bad rather than something good? Does the Minister agree that a voluntary scheme, such as I understand exists at the moment, may not be enough?

Indeed, and we must recognise that there are limits to a voluntary scheme, particularly where actors are genuinely malign. I reassure the noble Viscount that any research contracted for purposes of defence, or indeed for purposes that might be used for defence, would be subject to vetting in the usual way. Depending on the nature of the research, the greater the vetting.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary fellow of the University of Strathclyde. This challenge to our universities is both fast-moving and intensifying in complexity. Now, the Russell group comprises some universities across the United Kingdom, but not all. Universities UK represents many universities across the United Kingdom, but not all. Is there, or are there plans for, a United Kingdom Government security portal, accessible to all universities across the United Kingdom, for immediate advice and information, if they have concerns?

I thank my noble friend for that. Yes, the university sector absolutely does go far beyond just the Russell group. We must take account of all its needs. The review of protections for higher education and academia is now entering its second phase. There will be consultation on that over the summer. An area it will look at is precisely the mechanics that my noble friend puts forward as to how this kind of transparency can best be delivered with the minimum possible administrative overhead.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recall that, as long ago as September 2023, his noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone, in conjunction with King’s College, produced a report warning about the dangers which the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, mentioned to the House? It called for diversification of the population base of our universities, which had become too reliant on money flowing in from China. Will he also comment on the case that was raised in the media last month of Professor Michelle Shipworth, who was banned from teaching what was called a “provocative” course at a prestigious university, UCL, simply because it might compromise commercial interests—that is, the flow of money from China?

I certainly recognise the concern that overseas undergraduates tend to come very largely from a small number of countries, and the value of diversifying from that. I am afraid I am not familiar with the case the noble Lord mentions. I am very happy to write to him about it. It sounds extremely concerning.

My Lords, upholding national security is the first duty of any Government. To that end, we welcome the Government’s recent briefing for vice-chancellors and the intention to consult on how better to protect UK research from academic espionage. Given the importance of and the likely increase in these threats, does the Minister think it would be reasonable for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to offer similar briefings to their shadow counterparts?

I would be very happy to raise that with them and ask them to do so. I take the noble Baroness’s point. There is nothing more important for us to do than look after our security, and research security is a very serious component of that.

Would the Minister recognise that it is extremely important that his department works closely with the Home Office on this? I noticed last week the warning, from my successor but three at MI5, to vice-chancellors of the threat from Chinese espionage in universities, much of which will be by students under coercion. If I may answer the noble Baroness’s question about who you can go to, there is an organisation but such is my senility that I cannot remember its name. I will look it up. It is connected very closely to MI5, but it is the public-facing organisation to which you go with concerns. It starts “National Protective Security”, I think, but a quick look on my telephone has not revealed the answer, so I will talk to her later. The Minister probably knows the answer, but I am afraid I do not.

I am consulting the lengthy list of acronyms that I wrote down in preparing for this, but I am not sure I have the right one. I take the noble Baroness’s point very seriously. We work extremely closely on this with the Home Office. A number of the legislative provisions keeping our research secure belong to the Home Office and we continue to work closely with it. As to the exact agency she mentioned, I will find out from my officials and write to her.