27 February 2002



Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 12:13 GMT

Scientists fight research controls

The Export Control Bill could face trouble in the Lords

By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Opposition is building to UK Government plans to widen control of science subjects deemed too sensitive to research and teach.

Academic lobby groups, privacy watchdogs and some peers are seeking changes to the Export Control Bill that gives the government power to oversee what scientists say and write about some subjects.

One group fears the introduction of the bill could limit academic freedom and mean onerous licensing regimes for some scientists.

The government has defended the bill and said it had a duty to control goods or technology that could be exploited by terrorists.

Bill battle

The row over the Export Control Bill blew up this week as scientists and researchers realised the potential scope of the powers contained in the legislation.

Universities UK, which represents university administrators, has pledged to push for significant changes to the Export Control Bill which it believes grants the government too many powers to oversee and veto research work.

The organisation is worried about:

Universities UK said clauses in the bill allowed the government to potentially include "all of science and technology" within its proposed controls.

A spokesman for Universities UK said it broadly welcomed the bill when it was first published in June 2001, but was worried now because the bill lacked a direct reference to the protection of routine academic activity and the free exchange of information.

A House of Commons committee that looked at a draft of the bill last year also wanted this basic protection added to the legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry said it could not give the guarantees demanded by Universities UK in primary legislation because of the changing face of international agreements.

She said the definition of 'public domain' was kept under review by international export control regimes.

"The government considers it important to ensure that we can keep our own national legislation in line with the international concept and definitions used."

Weapons grade

The bill has been drawn up to update pre-war legislation that limited the export of hardware that could be used to create weapons.

The government wants the same controls extended to science subjects that could be used to wage war or commit terrorist acts.

It also wants to limit how researchers in "sensitive" areas talk about their work, with whom they collaborate and whom they teach.

"Sensitive" in this sense means subjects dealing with weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Some fear that in updating the bill the government is granting itself sweeping powers of oversight.

"Because the scope is radically extended by including intangibles, internal UK publications and communications, the power has become vastly wider in its potential impact," said Nicholas Bohm, a solicitor and advisor to privacy watchdog the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

Mr Bohm echoed Universities UK's call for clauses in the bill to guarantee basic academic freedoms.

"If the government does not mean to control what's already in the public domain and does not mean to vet in advance research papers it should not take that power," he said. "It should be excluded on the face of the bill."

The Export Control Bill is due to come up for debate in the House of Lords on 4 March. Many scientifically inclined peers are known to have misgivings about it and are likely to table amendments.

The government has reportedly been taken aback by the scale of agitation the bill has caused which has been prompted partly by the web pages of the eminent University of Cambridge cryptographer Ross Anderson. These pages detail the bill's more contentious elements.