Australia's science agency ramps up security on foreign partnerships

Kirsty Needham
·2-min read

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's science agency will screen collaborations with foreign partners for national security risks using a new digital tool that vets by country, looking for potential political interference and human rights abuses, officials said on Friday.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) outlined the increased security measures to a parliamentary intelligence and security committee. The changes come against the backdrop of increasing diplomatic tensions between Australia and China, its top science partner.

Nima Torabi, CSIRO's executive manager of security and reliance, said the agency had "robust and regular contact" with national security agencies in the past year, leading it to "uplift security".

The digital security tool, under development with the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), will vet by country and track the potential for political interference and human rights abuses. It will be ready for use in May, Torabi said.

ASIO earlier this month said the government was drawing up a list of critical and emerging technologies that will be subject to restrictions on foreign collaboration.

The Australian Research Council said ASIO, along with Home Affairs, had also increased vetting of government-funded projects at the country's universities.

The research council's manager, manager Kylie Emery, said agencies were checking the foreign political party affiliations of funding applicants. The council rejected five applications on national security grounds in December, for the first time.

"The ground is changing dramatically," Emery said.

Several university officials said they planned to diversify the source of international students when borders reopen after the coronavirus pandemic, because they were too economically reliant on China.

University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese, the former head of the government's foreign affairs department, said there had been "a ramping up of China's coercive behaviour and a more blatant use of economic leverage".

A CSIRO official, Dave Agnew, said none of the science agency's staff are members of China's Thousand Talents, a programme that uses financial incentives to attract foreign technology expertise to China. Several researchers at U.S. universities and space agency NASA have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with lying about their involvement in the programme.

(This story refiles to remove extraneous words "list of" in paragraph 5)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Jane Wardell)