News & AnalysisDual Use Research

Australian Researchers Rattled by Export Control Law

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Science  15 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6125, pp. 1263
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6125.1263

CANBERRA—An emerging controversy over an Australian government effort to tighten controls on research that could be used for good and evil is getting some high-level attention. On 25 March, a special 11-member advisory panel led by Australia's chief scientist will meet here. Its task: to assess how recently adopted regulations on the export of a long list of "dual use" technologies—such as missile designs and knowledge about viruses that could be used to make bioweapons—will affect Australian science.

Dual role.

Ian Chubb, the Australian government's chief scientist, is leading a high-level panel that is examining how new controls on dual use research are affecting scientists.


Some researchers fear that the new export controls—approved late last year as part of a defense treaty between Australia and the United States—will stifle the ability of Australian researchers to communicate with colleagues abroad. "It's explicitly stated that researchers would be prohibited from communicating by any means—e-mails, papers, or speeches—to a person outside Australian borders without a defense permit," says biophysicist Jill Trewhella, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Sydney. Such constraints could prompt some Australian scientists to abandon certain lines of research or move abroad, she warns.

But Ian Chubb, the government's independent chief scientist, says such concerns are premature—and that his panel will be working to clarify the new rules, which will be phased in over the next 2 years. "I'm tired of shadowboxing and speculating about what might happen," Chubb says. "We have an opportunity to jump in and make recommendations that will eliminate any problems."

The issue has been simmering since October 2012 when Australia's Parliament approved the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA), which implements a 2007 U.S.-Australia pact designed to streamline trade in defense-related technology and knowhow. DTCA is not Australia's first effort to keep problematic technologies out of the hands of potential enemies. Like the United States and most other industrialized nations, Australia has long regulated the export of dual-use technologies, requiring researchers and companies working on things like new weapons and certain software and electronics to get special permits before sharing their innovations.

In recent years, growing concern about bioterrorism has prompted nations to extend export controls to the life sciences and impose new restrictions on the sharing of information and samples for researchers working with dangerous bacteria, viruses, and toxins. The issue gained global prominence last year, during the controversy over two studies involving the H5N1 avian influenza virus, when the governments of the United States and the Netherlands required some scientists to obtain export control licenses before discussing the studies at international meetings and submitting final manuscripts to journals (Science, 1 March, p. 1025). Some influenza scientists have chafed at the licensing requirement, arguing that it violated other policies that exempt communication about basic research from export controls.


Biophysicist Jill Trewhella says that export control rules will make it more difficult for Australian scientists to communicate with colleagues overseas.


One problem with Australia's new law, critics say, is that it appears to do away with similar, long-standing exemptions from export controls for basic research. Prior to passage of the law, for example, Australia's customs regulations excluded scientific publications and e-mail communication with international research collaborators. Now, analysts say, researchers working with any of the items on the export control list will have to think twice before hitting the send button. "The implications of the legislation are complex and important," says Belinda Robinson, chief executive of the umbrella group Universities Australia, which was one of several groups that urged the government to appoint a special panel to examine the law's impact on research.

The government responded late last year, creating the Strengthened Export Controls Steering Group. Its members are major movers and shakers, including Chubb, the heads of Australia's two major research funding agencies, senior administrators from the Queensland and Newcastle universities, and leading defense and industry officials. The panel, which meets quarterly and reports to the defense and research ministries, plans to keep a close watch on how the export licensing process is working and whether it is unnecessarily entangling scientists. It also plans to launch a series of studies examining the law's impact on different fields. It will make the results of those and other studies public and file a final report with Parliament at the end of DTCA's 2-year implementation period.

In the meantime, Australia's medical research funding body is drafting guidelines to help scientists comply with the new rules. And the government has tried to reassure scientists, agreeing not to prosecute those who fail to comply during the transition period.

Chubb says he expects the panel to find problems—and solutions. "Did anyone say the act was perfect yet? Not to my knowledge. Are we working to make it better? Yes," he says. "We need to get a balance here," he adds. "My view is that we do not toss away the notion of freedom of research. Equally, I don't want people to believe they can publish anything in any way they like. The aim of the exercise is to allow research to be as unrestricted as possible, but to stop damaging material and knowledge falling into the wrong hands."


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