In recent years, there have been fears that foreign powers might be using Dutch research to pursue their own strategic interests. The political consensus is that higher education institutions need to be more vigilant to ensure that their scientific knowledge doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
The concerns mainly centre around China, especially after revelations about indirect ties between Delft University of Technology and the Chinese military and a dubious Chinese-funded human rights centre at VU Amsterdam.
The higher education institutions have promised Minister Dijkgraaf to do more to protect their knowledge, and to carry out risk analyses. But how exactly will they tackle these challenges? VVD MP Hatte van der Woude fears they will each use their own ‘freestyle’ approach.
“I heard about one institution that apparently thought it was all just nonsense. That in itself is shocking to me”, Van der Woude said. She also mentioned that the same institution decided to talk to all of its researchers across every sector about potential risks. This is not the way to conduct a proper analysis, according to Van der Woude.
Together with other MPs from her own party and CDA, she tabled a motion demanding a more systematic approach. The motion called for the higher education institutions to conduct a “risk assessment for international ties and partnerships”. After all, the term ‘partnership’ covers a wide range of relationships.
While Minister Dijkgraaf did not oppose Van der Woude’s suggestions, he did put them into perspective. He noted that critical voices are very common in academia and stressed that the institutions were still cooperating. “They do what I ask of them.”
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. “Creating a solid foundation for knowledge security takes time”, Dijkgraaf noted. “I don’t think we’re creating red tape – I really believe we’re raising awareness and providing clarity with these tools.”
Van der Woude wasn’t reassured yet. Much to her surprise, one university administrator compared China’s influence on Chinese universities to that of the Netherlands on Dutch universities. “They’re totally incomparable.”
She was referring to critical statements about the new knowledge security rules made by Maastricht University rector Rianne Letschert on Radio 1. Based on her comments, Letschert did not appear to take the required risk assessments very seriously. The system will never be completely watertight, Letschert said, while the measures will pose an obstacle to international collaborations. “I have quite a large Chinese community at my university that feels stigmatised.”
Letschert does agree that Dutch institutions shouldn’t work together with foreign regimes, but she believes that they should still be able to collaborate with individuals. And if those scientists have ties to the Chinese government? According to Letschert, there’s nothing inherently suspicious about this: “We are all linked to a government – I’m also linked to a government.”
Her remarks were not well received by Van der Woude. How do you convince institutions of the importance of knowledge security when their administrators make these kinds of comments? But Dijkgraaf did not put much store by Letschert’s statements. “I currently have no indication that the urgency of this matter is not felt collectively, and it is certainly felt among administrators.”
‘Closing the borders’ is not the solution, according to Dijkgraaf. “We have very little room to manoeuvre here, because the Netherlands is highly dependent on international cooperation to strengthen its knowledge institutions”, he commented. “We really have so much to offer the world. And the world also gives us a lot in return. At the same time, we do need to be extra careful.”
Minister Dijkgraaf advised against a motion by Forum voor Democratie (FvD), which sought to bar Chinese students and researchers “from all sensitive knowledge domains”. “Collaborating with China in certain areas is still important to us”, Dijkgraaf said. “Our decision-making with regard to these collaborations is based on the principle ‘open where possible, but closed where necessary’.”
FvD MP Ralf Dekker asked how China was different from Iran, which is subject to stricter rules. Dijkgraaf: “I believe there are specific sanctions against Iran that we must observe. There are no such sanctions limiting collaboration with China. But we still need to stay alert, don’t we? We should also be able to look each other in the eye here and say that these threats are obviously not evenly distributed across all countries in the world.”