Laws being introduced by the Government would give it the power to see academic papers before they are published and suppress them. It could also prevent the use of e-mails between foreign colleagues.
The Export Control Bill, being steered through the Lords by the Department of Trade and Industry, could also mean foreign students working in British laboratories would need "licences".
The Bill, a revision of the 1939 Export Control Act, will include powers that put software, e-mail and even speech under official control.
"This has serious implications for academic freedom," said Dr Ross Anderson, of the security research group at Cambridge University. Dr Anderson, an expert in cryptographic systems, went on: "The DTI is trying to extend the scope of the Export Control Bill to interfere with all the nooks and crannies of science and technology. They like the idea of being able to exercise a pre-publication review – which they've never been able to do in the past. If you submit a patent, it could be suppressed for defence reasons but scientific papers never had that."
The DTI insisted the laws would not be applied to information already in the public domain and the legislation contained an exemption for "basic scientific research".
But determining whether the science was "basic" or "applied" – which would need licensing – would require the scientist to contact the DTI.
The areas covered could change all the time. In the House of Lords, Baroness Hendon argued that the Secretary of State would have a "continuous power" to make fresh orders that could add to or detract from the type of goods governed by the legislation. That would let the minister change the reason software or even e-mail would require a licence – and what subjects were proscribed from communication.
Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science, said: "It's all very well saying they won't use these powers themselves but they are creating these powers, and who knows who will be in charge a few years down the line?"
He added: "This is especially ironic, given that this Government claims to be in favour of freedom of information. Anything that stops the publication of any serious peer-reviewed work is bad.
"We've seen from the examples of BSE and genetically modified organisms that the only way to get people to trust scientists is to be completely open – not to stop them doing something on the grounds of national security."
The DTI said European regulations that recently became law already controlled the export outside the European Union of "dual-use" items and ideas, which could have civil or military uses. The new laws would be used principally to cover military uses and the export of any objects or concepts that could be used for nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
But Dr Anderson noted important implications for universities. "Teaching medicine to a foreign national would appear to require a licence – many of the core curriculum subjects, such as bacteriology, virology, toxicology, biochemistry and pharmacology are central to a chemical and biological weapons programme. South Africa's programme was set up and run by P W Botha's personal physician. Other problematic subjects include not just nuclear physics and chemistry but aerodynamics, flight control systems, navigation systems, and even computational fluid dynamics."
Dr Anderson said he had been told by the DTI that the e-mails he swapped with scientists in Norway and Israel in the late 1990s, when they were developing a cryptographic technique for a competition, would be subject to licensing under the revised Act. A DTI spokeswoman said she could not comment on a specific case.
The Bill is a piece of "primary legislation" that creates a legal framework; and is made enforceable through "secondary legislation" that specifies the objects covered by the new law.
However, the Government has not published the secondary legislation – only a dummy version.
During debate in the Lords last week, Lord Sainsbury of Turville said the new Bill was the result of a detailed examination of the former Act called for by the Scott report into the arms-for-Iraq scandal in 1996. That report said arms controls were too lax and there were not enough checks to make sure items had the use that was claimed for them and they reached the destinations they were said to be bound for.Reuse content