Summary of 2023 Symposium: Professors Steven Chown and Frances Separovic

November 14, 2023
A composite of two images: on the left is a woman, Professor Frances Separovic AO FAA, behind the lectern. On the right, Professor Steven Chown FAA gesticulates while speaking.
National Symposium 2023 convenors. Left: Professor Frances Separovic AO FAA. Right: Professor Steven Chown FAA.

Welcome back, everyone.

We have now come to the end of the 2023 Symposium. Today we have heard from a range of thought leaders from Defence, foreign affairs, our security agencies, the university and research sectors, and industry.

We have examined the complexity and changing nature of the geopolitical landscape and the challenges national security experts, scientists, and researchers alike face in navigating this terrain.

I would like to thank all of our speakers and panelists for sharing your expertise with us today, and for the frank discussions that took place.

I found some of it confronting and some of it encouraging.

There are some principles I think we could all agree on:

  • when risks are managed, we can achieve greater outcomes through international collaboration while maintaining security needs. Responses need to be proportional to risk, and grounded in evidence rather than fear
  • science is a critical diplomatic asset and a lever to deter conflict. The scientific community can provide a window of communication to other nations that political leaders can use
  • Australia plays an important role in international science diplomacy and working with key partners such as the US, UK, Europe and China. The Academy will play a key role in regional diplomacy through our hosting of the International Science Council Regional Focal Point for the Asia-Pacific
  • international collaboration is the norm in Australia and central to our scientific research capability—and is underpinned by academic freedom. It is in our sovereign interest to remain a part of international scientific collaboration; it gives us access to breakthrough innovations, ensures we don’t fall behind or be caught unprepared and allows us to leverage global expertise and infrastructure to advance Australia’s national interests 
  • scientists have a responsibility to be security aware and do their due diligence, managing research administration burdens which we anticipate will increase in the coming years
  • governments have a responsibility to consider unintended consequences and to measure the impact of security measures of the research ecosystem. Government has a responsibility to consider how compliance and regulatory burden are reflected in research funding.  Geopolitical interests are shaping international collaborations, and as Sir Peter Mathieson and Diarmuid Cooney-O'Donoghue mentioned, we don’t want researchers to need to ‘self-censor’—it’s not in Australia’s national interest.

With the assistance of the Academy’s policy team, who have been furiously taking notes over the course of the day, I will ask Steven to try to summarise what we have learnt and what will inform the Academy’s next steps.


Our keynotes this morning discussed that, when presented with global challenges and the big challenges of our time, we can only solve them together. Agile international collaboration between scientists is essential, such as was demonstrated in the COVID-19 pandemic.

As scientists, we know that the best solutions come from the sharing of ideas.

The balance between collaboration and national security is delicate, but when managed correctly can lead to strategic and productive partnerships and collaborations.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs the Hon Tim Watts MP spoke to the constrained environment we are operating in, but that there is still so much we can do to benefit Australia, our region, and the world. He also highlighted international partnerships on space, energy, and critical minerals.

Deputy Secretary National Security and Resilience Nathan Smyth emphasised that foreign espionage and interference present an unprecedented threat to Australia.

He spoke on how our best asset to protect our intellectual property and national security is for institutions and researchers, who best understand their research, to exercise due diligence to identify and address risks and what the end use of a technology may end up being in the hands of nefarious actors.

In the Q&A discussion, audience members highlighted the resources needed to help the research sector exercise due diligence, and the problematic ‘zero-sum’ framing of national security discourse (“we got it, they want it, we need to protect it”). In Australia's case, we also need to consider the inverse framing  (“we don’t have it, they do have it”).

Deputy Prime Minister the Hon Richard Marles MP, in conversation with Chief Defence Scientist Professor Tanya Munro AC, discussed the Defence strategic review and how state power is now innovation power.

He spoke about how Australia needs a science-centric culture—and that the biggest microeconomic reform challenge we have is infusing our economy with science and technology.

Panel 1

Our first panel discussed the two-way responsibility for engagement between government and scientists. Scientists and their research organisations are required to understand their responsibilities, and government needs to ensure that guidance for engagement is implementable.

They discussed fundamental science to be included in considerations of risk for collaboration, because it is a pool of knowledge from which applications are drawn from.

The panel discussed AUKUS, the proposed Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill 2023 and what this means for working with other allies outside the trilateral agreement.

There will be benefits from free exchange with the US and UK, however, there are serious concerns in the research community regarding the impacts that proposed legislative reforms to strengthen export controls, including criminal penalties, will have on research collaborations captured in the Defence and Strategic Goods List with countries and foreign nationals outside this partnership—and the very architecture of our research system.

Professor Monro highlighted work her team is doing engaging with the sector to establish ‘carve-outs’ in the regulations—today’s discussions are highly valuable in this context, and the Academy will engage with this to convene those impacted by the legislation and provide science advice to design a workable system of export controls.

Panel 2

Our second panel explored current approaches to the management of national security risks associated with research collaboration in Australia and overseas in the context of increasing geopolitical tension and the emergence of a multipolar research system. Presenters focused on collaborations with China, considering both potential risks and rewards.

This ‘spicy’ session highlighted the real human impact on researchers and risks to research culture from an overly cautious and disproportionate approach.  It challenged the evidence base on which security measures have been designed.

As well as exploring the current experiences of managing security risks in Australian universities, lessons from the global experience were highlighted. The importance of a balanced approach to regulation and compliance that protects academic excellence and freedom emerged, as did the importance of engagement and information sharing between government, the national security sector and the research sector.

Panel 3

Our third panel considered whether current constraints on international engagement will impact the ability of science and technology to help solve global challenges.

The panel discussion emphasised that collaboration is central to solving global challenges such as climate change. They are too big and too complex to be solved with a single perspective and no single nation has the full suite of capabilities to realise emerging technologies that could be part of solutions.

Sharing their experience in international science collaboration, panellists recognised that collaboration comes with risk, but that this must be balanced with the risks posed by global challenges.

They reflected on how we can re-think and reshape international and local collaboration in more inclusive ways, as well as opportunities to learn from the way we have worked in the past.

For example, the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty in the lead-up to 1959 was about demilitarisation and the prohibition of nuclear proliferation.

This is an example of science collaborating despite the deterioration of politics regarding dual use technologies and goods.  


The big question we sought to answer today was: “have we got the balance right between national security and research openness?”

I don’t think we have an answer, other than we need to get the balance right—and we will need to continue to try to get it right as geopolitics changes and science and technology evolves.

We did reach some points of agreement:

  • science and scientific collaboration is vital. Australians are terrific collaborators, and long may this continue. From the discussions today, we seem to be on the same page about this—but we need to weigh the benefits against the risks, and we need to consider focusing collaborations with those nations that share our values
  • the world order of science is changing, and this has implications for how scientists assess the risks—both positive and negative—of collaborative activities
  • this implies a degree of cultural change needed—both by government in its habits of engagement with the scientific community, but also by scientists to understand the changed geopolitical environment and the perspective of the national security community
  • it is essential that government, the national security community and the research community work side by side and forge an open dialogue on risks and are clear-eyed on the issues this presents for research
  • it would be helpful to establish a more systematic architecture and taxonomy for Australia’s equivalent of FFRDCs and UARCs and understand how they can be further developed to support Australia’s research endeavour.

There are serious discussions that started today around new legislation that is coming around Defence export controls to understand the actual target of regulatory action, and the implications of this on the architecture and conduct of research in this country and beyond.

This will affect research and researchers, and we need to be transparent and aware of the realities of how this will play out and how to encourage compliance and minimise unintended consequences.

These discussions and dialogue will need to continue.

We look forward to sharing the detailed proceedings with you all in the coming months, which will inform useful discussions that can progress the sharing of knowledge between scientists and government to ensure we support vital international scientific collaboration while protecting both our scientists and their intellectual property, and our nation.

It has been a pleasure to co-convene and host this symposium.

Thank you all once again and I will now hand over to Professor Chennupati Jagadish for his final remarks.

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