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Australia to employ ‘digital tool’ for vetting research partnerships

Image credit: reuters

According to a Reuters report, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) will begin using a new digital tool to screen collaborations with international partners, searching for signs of political manipulation and human rights violations.

CSIRO is Australia’s national science agency and innovation body. It has a worldwide presence, with more than 50 sites across four continents, and partnerships with many global and foreign organisations. Australia’s main partner in scientific research (as well as in trade) is China.

The diplomatic rift between Australia and China has been growing in recent years, with Chinese investment in Australia plummeting, Australia calling for a thorough investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the imposition of enormous tariffs on imports of Australian goods such as wine and beef. Following attacks on public bodies last year by 'state-backed hackers', many Australian organisations – including Western Australia’s parliament – were struck by a cyber attack this month. According to an ABC report, the Australian government believe the Chinese government may have been responsible for the attack; the Chinese Embassy has dismissed these suspicions as a “deplorable” part of a misinformation campaign to undermine China.

According to Reuters, CSIRO will begin practising greater caution in its search for foreign partnerships, using a new digital tool which assesses projects by country.

CSIRO executive manager for security and reliance Nima Torabi explained the agency’s motive for the move to a parliamentary committee this week, saying that the agency has been in “robust” contact with national security agencies for the past year and has decided to augment its security measures.

Very little is known about how this tool works; it is being developed by CSIRO and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and reportedly takes into consideration risk of political interference and human rights abuses. It will be ready for deployment in May. ASIO has been working with the government to create a list of critical technologies that will be subject to restrictions on foreign collaboration for security purposes, and has been involved with increased vetting of publicly funded projects at Australian universities.

Kylie Emery, who manages the research council, said that agencies are assessing funding applications on the basis of foreign political party affiliation. She said that five applications were rejected in December on the grounds of national security concerns. “The ground is changing dramatically,” she said, according to the Reuters report.

Peter Vaghese, chancellor of the University of Queensland, commented that there has been a “ramping up of China’s coercive behaviour and a more blatant use of economic leverage”.

Meanwhile, the first major US-China talks since President Joe Biden took office were marked by plainly worded disagreements and criticisms on both sides. In the days before the meeting, held in Alaska, the Biden administration issued numerous actions against China, including a gesture indicating intent to remove Chinese telecoms licenses, updated sanctions, and subpoenas to technology companies on account of national security concerns.

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