‘New knowledge security screening is counterproductive’

After two years of research, science journalist Saar Slegers is concerned about a knowledge security law that will take effect in 2025. “There are huge practical obstacles.”

Podcast creator Saar Slegers: "I have spoken to academics at Dutch universities – including TU Delft – who already now do not accept Iranian or Chinese people because of the administrative hassles." (Photo: Jaden Accord)

In the five-part Vriend of Vijand (friend or foe, Human/VPRO broadcasting corporation, in Dutch) podcast series, science journalist and former Delta editor Saar Slegers is examining the predicaments behind the Dutch knowledge security policy and the impact that the policy will have on individual scientists. Among the people she talks to are Dutch and Iranian scientists, policy officers, people from the intelligence services, and Minister Dijkgraaf of the Ministry of Education. He is working on a new bill for the screening of knowledge security that will take effect in January 2025. It targets researchers from outside the European Union who want to work with sensitive knowledge. Delta spoke to Slegers about her new podcast and TU Delft’s knowledge security policy.

Why did you want to make this podcast?
“The seed was planted after a conversation with a researcher of Iranian heritage in the Netherlands. He – or better said, his subject group – were suddenly subjected to screening in relation to links with Iran’s rocket programme. He did not have any links, but was shocked by having to undergo the screening. While he had lived in the Netherlands for 10 years and had a Dutch passport, it came across as threatening enough that he did not feel welcome here anymore. He now works as an academic in the United States. I wanted to know about the policy that lay behind this.”

You have worked on this podcast for about two years. What is the most important issue that you unearthed in this time?
“There are actually two issues. The first is how confrontational it is for an academic if he/she is suddenly seen as a security risk because of his/her nationality and must undergo a screening. Knowledge security affects people very directly. Academics sometimes live in stress for months wondering if they can keep their jobs, they feel that are being looked at strangely at universities, and are unsure about what they are being evaluated on. A minor detail can work against them. At the same time, I came to understand that the academic values with which I developed as an academic journalist, such as the open sharing of knowledge and freedom of education, are not as universal as I had always assumed. Countries such as China have different types of policy values. You need to understand this as an academic.”

‘I had to earn the trust of people along the way’

Was it hard to get people to talk for your podcast?
“Yes, it took a look of effort. People were prepared to talk off the record, but not on the record. For academics from high risk countries who are suddenly seen as a security risk, it is extremely hard to talk openly. They are already viewed with suspicion and will only lose out. Policy officers or staff at intelligence services were also reluctant to talk at first. They understood all too well that if they say too much, they may put someone in danger or jeopardise their university or the reputation of their university. People were also suspicious as in the news, knowledge security often immediately associated with spying and fingers are pointed. I had to earn the trust of people along the way.”

TU Delft is miles ahead of other universities in the Netherlands in terms of aspects like the number of military Chinese PhD candidates. Is the discussion around knowledge security different at TU Delft than at other universities?
“Yes. Partly because of this reason, TU Delft has thought critically about knowledge security for longer than other universities. The University of Twente has now come far. At non-technical universities in particular, it is a relatively new thing to work on knowledge security.”

TU Delft has taken some measures including guidelines on knowledge security advice. Researchers can refer to the guidelines to check if an intended partnership comprises any potential risks. The guidelines contain information on sensitive research areas such as nanotechnology. It can also be used to check if an academic institution is on the EU sanctions list. What do you think about the guidelines?
“I have quite a lot of comments about it. One thing is that the EU sanctions list is not intended for people, but for exporting goods. The danger is that the guidelines make the sanctions list appear like the be all and end all. It then depends hugely on the amount of time and effort a TU Delft academic puts in to look critically at the document and to question the intention and underlying idea of an EU sanctions list. At the same time, I understand that there are very few legal means available at the moment so TU Delft is trying to make things clear for researchers.”

‘I have talked to academics at TU Delft that do not accept people from China or Iran anymore’

Does that mean that it is good that national regulations will be introduced in a new law in 2025 to screen international academics that want to work here?
“A screening like this will only work if academics hear quickly – such as within a fortnight – if they can come to the Netherlands. The way it looks now, this will take far longer. I base this on the existing screening of Iranian students and academics that took effect in 2019. It is at a far smaller scale but has already led to huge dramas, in part because it has sometimes taken months before an academic got the green light. The 2025 bill will list more risky countries and fields of work, so you will need even more capacity for screening (in Dutch) than there is now.

In the podcast, academics in the Netherlands express their concerns that talented international researchers will apply to other countries with less strict regulations if they have to wait months for permission to work here. The bill is intended to protect the Dutch knowledge economy, but if you miss out on talented academics, you will damage the Dutch knowledge economy in equal measure. It is more attractive for a subject group to accept an academic who can get going immediately than someone you have to wait months for. I have spoken to academics at Dutch universities – including TU Delft – who already now do not accept Iranian or Chinese people because of the administrative hassles. There are huge practical obstacles. I am concerned that the new screening will be counterproductive.”

Is it not partly up to academics in the Netherlands to be aware of their own actions? And thus continue to accept talent from Iran, China or other non-EU countries?
“Definitely. But academics are already so busy that I wonder how realistic this is.”

In the podcast you also talk to a knowledge security policy officer, Irna van der Molen, at the University of Twente. She questions the Dutch definition of knowledge security as it also includes economic interests. 
“Economic security was only included in knowledge security recently. I tried to check how long this has been the case, but was not able to find the information. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear what is meant by economic security. Even a spokesperson at the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) was unable to give a clear answer. And this while the AIVD writes that it protects the economic security of the Netherlands in its annual report. This then refers to the ‘innovative power’ or ‘the Netherlands’ earnings model’. These are terms that everyone has an idea about but they are so vague that it is hard to translate them into policy. If policymakers are unable to make underlying principles clear, I lose faith in the diligence behind the policy.”

  • Saar Slegers is an academic journalist and makes radio programmes. She has produced podcasts such as De Rode Draad (the red thread, in Dutch, Bureau Buitenland, VPRO broadcast corporation) and De Man en de Maan (the man and the moon, in Dutch, Docs, NTR broadcast corporation). She was awarded several journalism prizes for the latter podcast. Slegers started her career at Delta.
  • Use this link to find the podcast on your favourite podcast platform.
News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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