Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Defence Act Casts a Long Shadow

By Guy Nolch

The battle now shifts from public good to commercial research, as new Defence powers threaten a broad range of “dual-use” technologies.

Last month marked the centenary of the foundation of the Australian Council of Science and Industry, which later evolved into today’s CSIRO. The Prime Minister of the fledgling nation, Billy Hughes, had argued for the establishment of a scientific organisation that would “solve problems that seemed insoluble”, many of which were agricultural for a country that was riding on the sheep’s back.

Much has changed in Australia – and indeed in science – over the past century but land, water and climate science remain central to the public good. However, the freedom for our scientists to pursue public good research has been stymied as successive governments have sought an economic return on their investment.

It was this financial imperative that led CSIRO management to slash and burn its land, water and climate research (http://www.australasianscience.com.au/article/issue-march-2016/csiro-wea...), arguing that the climate data had been gathered and now it was time to move onto climate mitigation research. Since then temperatures have soared to new records, the Great Barrier Reef has experienced extensive coral bleaching, and a new study has predicted that the world could be 1.5°C hotter as soon as 2020 (see p.6). Is climate mitigation already relying on outdated modelling?

The heated environment spread to a Senate Inquiry last month. “Our reputation is now trashed internationally,” said CSIRO stalwart Dr John Church, who argued that once CSIRO’s expertise was lost “we could not attract those people again”.

Dr Richard Matear asked the inquiry whether CSIRO’s focus on commercialisation was “in the long-term interest of Australia... I think not, that’s why I’m speaking here.”

But CSIRO is not the only scientific organisation being driven by commercial requirements. Defence, too, has a research arm that needs to pay its way, and this month it’s gaining some extraordinary powers.

The Defence Trade Controls Act, which comes into force on 2 April, controls research that could have military applications. While this seems a reasonable proposition in an age of cyberattacks and regional pandemics, Brendan Jones (http://www.australasianscience.com.au/article/issue-april-2016/defence-t...) warns that the “353-page list of such ‘dual-use’ technologies (www.tinyurl.com/jcsm9ro) lays claim to just about every field of research”.

Furthermore, the Act prohibits communication of this research with colleagues overseas. A simple email could land a scientist in jail for 10 years, attract a fine of $425,000, and even lead to forfeiture of the research to Defence. This isn’t practical in an era of international research collaboration.

Nor is it practical for business, whose intellectual property is under threat. “Defence inspectors accompanied by defence scientists can now demand entry to research premises for an ‘audit’, and make copies of intellectual property,” Jones writes. Already, he says, there have been instances of IP theft, including from his own company.

Jones has dissolved his business and moved offshore, and expects others to join him. Such an outcome is a bust for a government that has been advertising its National Innovation and Science Agenda as an “ideas boom”.

Guy Nolch is Editor/Publisher of Australasian Science.