Defence Bill still needs work to protect researchers

The Square Kiometre Array is just one of many projects academics fear will be impacted by the proposed Defence Trade Controls Bill. AAP

A controversial bill designed to free up defence trade with the US will leave Australian researchers vulnerable to criminal prosecution unless changes are made, says University of Sydney academic Michael Biercuk.

Under the bill, which is due to go before the Senate in coming weeks, researchers who share proscribed information without permission could be subject to up to ten years in prison.

However Cooperative Research Centre Association chief executive Tony Peacock has played down concerns that the Defence Trade Controls Bill could potentially criminalise common activities undertaken in the course of university research.

Mr Peacock said the research community was helping oversee the implementation of the legislation, and that he felt the research cmmunity could cope with the Bill as it stands.

“You’ve got to let the government get on with legislation at some point,” Mr Peacock said.

However Dr Biercuk said the concern that Australian universities and research organisations might be disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in the US had still not been addressed, despite a Senate Committee agreeing the government should be guided by this principle when drafting amendments to the Bill.

Dr Biercuk said he was not opposing the consultations that had occurred, nor the Bill as a whole, but instead was seeking an amendment to prevent the Bill from unreasonably restricting low-risk research.

Universities Australia has also endorsed the Committee recommendation that the Bill be amended to stop it being more onerous on Australia than the US, however Dr Biercuk said the legislation as written does not give effect to this provision.

“Given what we know about the Bill as written and the proposed amendments, we should seek further amendment to ensure that the Bill meets the obligations set forth in the Committee report,” Dr Biercuk said.

“This seems more straightforward than hoping to correct problems with post-legislative changes.”

Mr Peacock disagreed with the argument that Australian researchers would be disadvantaged by the Bill, arguing there would be an oversight committee looking at how quickly the Defence Department was responding to related requests.

“There will be some places where people won’t be able to export certain knowledge but I don’t think that will interfere with innovation,” he said.

The Bill gives effect to a Treaty between the Australian and US governments, signed by the Howard Government in 2007. It’s designed to reduce barriers to Australian-US defence trade, but also introduces a new kind of export control on so-called “intangible transfers” that has potential implications for Australian universities.

The Bill includes a transition period of up to two years, but Dr Biercuk said the fact that there will be no prosecutions during the transition period does not obviate the fact that there may be prosecutions afterwards.

“I still consider it inappropriate to prosecute publication of information derived from basic or applied research in the public good,” Dr Biercuk said.