Government to launch new consultation to protect UK universities from security threats

The Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, announced his intention to launch a consultation on measures to protect UK universities from national security threats posed by foreign states. He also...

The Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, announced his intention to launch a consultation on measures to protect UK universities from national security threats posed by foreign states.

He also recommitted to preserving the openness and independence that make the UK’s academic sector a jewel in the country’s crown. Measures will be focused on a small proportion of academic work, with a particular focus on research with potential dual uses in civilian and military life.

Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, said:

For a millennium, our universities have thrived on being open. Open to ideas, open to innovation, open to being independent of Government. This is not about erecting fences, this is about balancing evolving threats and protecting the integrity and security of our great institutions.

The announcement was delivered during a security briefing with Vice Chancellors from 24 of the UK’s leading universities, including the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, and co-hosted by the Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan.

It follows an internal Government review of the national security threats facing the higher education sector, which concluded foreign states are targeting sensitive research.

The threat posed by foreign states was discussed by the Director General of MI5 and Chief Executive Officer of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) during a joint threat assessment. Vice Chancellors heard about the risks facing academia and ways institutions can protect leading research in partnership with the UK Government, benefitting academia and national security at the same time.

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. Due to launch this summer, the consultation will also consider measures to prevent institutions becoming dependent on foreign investment.

The scope of options under consideration includes:

• exploring the feasibility of extending security clearance to key personnel within universities;

• funding options to develop research security capability within universities;

• establish a working group with government and research sector representatives, tasked with developing proposals for a new professional standard for research security practitioners;

• greater responsibilities and resources for the world-leading Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT);

• strengthened reporting processes to improve the transparency of funding flows and where they originate; and

• evaluation to understand the long-term impact of the implementation of existing security measures.

The NPSA and NCSC have also recently launched the Trusted Research Evaluation Framework (TREF) as part of their broader campaign to support universities to make appropriate decisions on international research collaborations. The Framework was co-created with the sector and responds to demand from academics to learn how to protect their research.

TREF aims to help institutions evaluate their own research security across seven areas of activity: senior endorsement and governance; communications; training; institutional risk and collaboration; people, processes, and guidance; data and devices; as well as impact evaluation. A recent Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) survey found that 84% of institutions surveyed had begun to change their processes in response to engagement with the Trusted Research campaign.

Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said:

I believe that universities are on the front lines of a battle for information. 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. I am passionate about giving universities the tools they need to keep themselves safe, and today we begin the conversation about how government can do more to help.

Today we are exploring new and innovative ways of collaborating on research security, ensuring that we are always one step ahead of the next threat. More secure, resilient universities means that researchers can get on with the important jobs ahead – from improving healthcare to clean, cheaper energy. Ultimately, this is about protecting our great universities so they can drive forward our economy and improve lives.

Vivienne Stern MBE, Chief Executive, Universities UK, said:

For several years, Universities UK has worked with Government to ensure that universities are supported and equipped to recognise and mitigate risks to national security. This is important and necessary, and we welcome the Government’s approach to working hand in hand with us to get the mechanisms right. This consultation is an important next step, and we will gather views from all 142 universities in our membership to help Government develop the right approach, which allows us to balance the need to remain open to collaboration with the need to protect national and university interests.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, said:

International collaboration is core to successful research and innovation. In an increasingly complex geopolitical context it’s really important to find ways to enable high quality collaboration while also protecting national interests. This consultation is an important step towards achieving this goal.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

Protecting the UK’s position as a world-leader in R&D requires a security framework for research which allows and supports joint work on global challenges like climate change without putting us at undue risk. This is a shared responsibility and Russell Group universities are keen to work with Ministers to get this right.

Russell Group universities take their national security responsibilities incredibly seriously and already work closely with government and the intelligence community to help protect UK breakthroughs in fields like AI, which are important to our national interest. But we also recognise security is a dynamic and evolving challenge which means we need the right expertise and intelligence to keep pace with this.

Boosting support for the Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) would be a really positive move that will make it easier for universities to identify risks when exploring new research partnership opportunities. Extending security clearance to key university personnel would be another step forward, and extra resources to boost capabilities through a Research Security Fund or alternative arrangements would help universities understand and respond at pace to new and emerging threats.

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