Academics will oppose Bill that 'curbs freedom'  

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The Independent Online

British universities will demand changes to the Government's new Export Control Bill so they can assure explicit protection for academic freedom.

Universities UK, which represents the vice-chancellors and principals of British universities, said yesterday it would press for an amendment to the legislation being considered by the House of Lords. It warned that certain parts of the Bill were so broadly worded that "essentially all of science and technology falls into it" – meaning that the Government could suppress scientific work before it appeared, and limit communication about it.

A spokesman for Universities UK (UUK) said: "Academics consider the option of publishing new research to be a basic freedom, and there is a fear that the new Bill will infringe this freedom."

The Bill, which revises the 1939 Export Control Act, sets new rules on what items can require export licences from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The list includes "intangibles" such as software and scientific knowledge

Up until now, export controls applied only to physical goods, and not apply to non-physical means of sending information, including e-mails.

A spokesman for the DTI said it would oppose the universities and their challenge. "We cannot see how any organisation can seriously say the Government should not have the power to control exports who might assist in acts of, for example, terrorism." The department cited an example that the head of the Iraqi Biological Weapons unit gained a PhD – in plant poisons – from the University of East Anglia.

The Bill is in two parts: primary legislation, which provides a framework of powers for the Secretary of State over export control; and the secondary legislation, which states what goods those controls apply to.

The primary legislation also includes clauses that could prevent publication of some scientific work deemed sensitive. While the DTI insists the secondary legislation – which has yet to be drafted or presented to Parliament – will contain exclusions, UUK is concerned they will be insufficient.

The UUK spokesman said: "The option of guaranteeing academic freedom in secondary legislation, although helpful, [is] a second-best option. Universities UK still views the primary legislation as the best place to enshrine those freedoms."

The primary legislation returns to the Lords on 4 March, when it will be discussed in committee. The full public consultation on the secondary legislation will be launched in the spring. The DTI said: "We very much want academics to be involved and to be aware of that, and to help us by supplying their opinions".

The restrictions in the legislation could also catch out universities in other ways. Foreign nationals who are to be taught "sensitive" subjects are supposed to have their names given to the DTI under a "voluntary vetting" scheme in the new laws. UUK fears that would become compulsory in those "sensitive" subjects.

Professor Ross Anderson, of Cambridge University, said: "Two of my [foreign] research students use a focused ion beam workstation to modify semiconductor chips. This machine is export controlled. What that means is the university has to get approval to buy one, and again several years later when we dispose of it. In future, we may need individual licences for my students to use it."

The DTI responded by saying it was "ridiculous" to suggest foreign students would require licences. The controls would only apply "if the academics knew or the Government specifically told them that the information was, or might be, intended for use in the creation of weapons of mass destruction."`