Building awareness and gaining insight into the multi-dimensional threat landscape surrounding knowledge security in research is the first step to adequately take measures. A radically nuanced approach, proportionality, as well as smooth cooperation between different stakeholders is key to make progress. These are some of the take-aways of the event ‘Knowledge Security in Research’, jointly organized by Neth-ER, TNO and KNAW on Tuesday the 28th of March.

Knowledge security in research demystified: towards joint action

Awareness and threats  

On Tuesday the 28th of March, a wide variety of stakeholders participated under Chatham House Rules in the event ’Knowledge Security in Research’, jointly organized by Neth-ER, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Among all speakers, there was clear consensus on the need to improve our understanding of the concept of knowledge security in research. Generally speaking, it concerns the undesirable transfer of sensitive knowledge and technology – e.g. intellectual property and ideas - and the exertion of influence in both overt and covert means by foreign state actors in order to advance their specific agenda. The threat landscape relates to security interests, and may comprise many different areas, such as institutional partnerships, financial dependency, or human capital, which often mutually interact with each other. Building awareness on knowledge security and its multidimensional threats is a prerequisite to becoming more resilient and taking action, which continues to become increasingly urgent, the speakers agreed. 

Diversified responsibility 

Although the case for action was clearly underlined, the participants were keen to stress that reaching ‘zero-risk’ is an illusion, as it would entail quitting international cooperation altogether. This is clearly not the intention given the central role international cooperation plays in the knowledge ecosystem. Rather, the ambition should be to mitigate risks as far as possible, for which a whole-of-government approach is needed, wherein stakeholders at all levels – national, European, international, institutional – smoothly collaborate through the exchange of information and peer learning. In this approach, each stakeholder has their own responsibility. National governments are concerned with safeguarding security interests and the European level facilitates and supports policy actions (for example through the EU-level guidelines on foreign interference). Knowledge institutions, on the other hand, have a responsibility to carefully interact with international partners. It was pointed out that knowledge institutions should take this responsibility very seriously, in order to avoid political interference - which may compromise their international openness, as well as academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Policy responses

A number of considerations for designing institutional policies were shared. The concept of ‘radical nuance’ was coined to describe the importance of differentiation and proportionality in any policy response. The speakers agreed that it is key to start with a risk analysis which reflects the specificities of specific organization. Since it is clear that not one single institution has all relevant knowledge available in-house to adequately take measures, one proposed solution is that institutions collectively professionalize their approach in a sector-wide model. Effort sharing according to respective institutional strengths and weaknesses could be part of such a model. When the speakers shared some of their practices in mitigating risks in international research collaboration, it became clear that different types of measures are in use, such as guidelines and targeted selection criteria. Finally, the benefits of a positive over a negative approach for gaining internal support were highlighted.

Neth-ER, TNO and KNAW thank all speakers for their contributions and the audience for participating. A follow-up event may take place at a later date.