Academic security: keep a sharp eye on Iran and North Korea

Are students and researchers from Iran and North Korea gaining access to scientific knowledge in the Netherlands for their own military objectives? Maybe universities need to raise their level of alert, a new whitepaper reveals.

In order to prevent North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear weapons, both countries have had sanctions imposed on the sharing of scientific data. Dutch universities and knowledge institutes should be more careful that sensitive information is not being relayed back to those countries.


Recently, the embargo against North Korea led to the evaluations of 315 students and researchers in the Netherlands in one year. But there were no consequences: everyone was given a waiver to study or research whatever he or she wanted to. A special task force is now asking whether these embargo measures are having any effect.

Sanctions against academics from Iran seem to be more useful. In the same year (starting 1 June 2019), 434 applications were reviewed, of which ten (later in the report given as nine) led to being designated as ‘high risk alert’.

But things seem to be stuck in low gear. In several cases, it took up to nine months before the application review was completed. This meant that some Master’s students 'had already started on the research stage before the application had been fully processed', the Taskforce discloses.

Another problem is that a residence permit for someone who is going to apply from outside the country can only be issued after having been granted a waiver. The result is longer waits for researchers before they can enter the Netherlands, which is not helpful for universities trying to recruit excellent staff.

Not watertight

Moreover, the regulatory scheme is not watertight. For example, what about students who don’t take exams for a particular subject, do they fall under this scheme? Furthermore, no one is paying any attention to visiting academics who only stay in the country a short time.

Another issue is that sometimes non-academic staff (such as secretaries, technicians and cleaners) have access to equipment and data. Finally, scientific knowledge is being shared with researchers associated with universities of applied sciences or with other university departments.

The level of surveillance is inadequate, the Taskforce believes, including surveillance that should be undertaken by the universities themselves. The institutions are more aware of security issues than previously, but their own monitoring is 'not yet adequately secure'.


On the other hand, there is a legal question: what is the procedure for lodging an objection against a waiver refusal? Applicants are now only allowed to file objections against decisions universities take based on such a recommendation, but not against the recommendation itself. The government must consider carefully whether this is insufficient.

Outgoing Ministers Kaag (Foreign Affairs) and Van Engelshoven (Education, Culture and Science) have promised to put this on the agenda. About the Taskforce’s other advice, however, like streamlining access to residence permits, they are less enthusiastic.

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