‘We need to be careful about all potential risks’

| Michaela Nesvarova

Before starting an international collaboration or hiring a foreign staff member, UT employees should now consult the ‘UT Policy on Knowledge Safety and Export Control’. ‘It deals with anything that could potentially endanger the UT community,’ explains Irna van der Molen, Senior Policy Advisor Knowledge Safety & Export Control.

Knowledge safety

As of May 2022, the University of Twente has a new Policy on Knowledge Safety and Export Control, which applies to the whole UT community. ‘Knowledge safety’ generally refers to preventing and mitigating the undesirable transfer of sensitive knowledge and technology, such as military goods. 

The policy’s goal is to prevent risks related to international collaborations. These include, for example, applications that might be used for human rights violations, cyber-surveillance or suppression, unintended contribution to the development or production of weapons of mass destruction and risks for national and international security.

For activities related to international cooperation – such as international visits, exchange or recruitment of staff -, UT employees should check the Knowledge Safety Guidelines available online.

What is the essence of the policy on knowledge safety and export control?

Van der Molen: ‘It is all about international cooperation and recruitment of staff from abroad. It deals with anything that could potentially endanger the UT community or the national – and international - security. When working with foreign partners, we need to check if military technology might be involved, if the technology could be used for monitoring or suppression of citizens, if the partner is affiliated with a military institute or whether the partner or the country are on a list of sanctions. We are not allowed to hire people from institutes on the sanctions list. These include, for instance, some universities in Syria and Iran. The full list is on our site.’

What is expected from each employee based on this new policy?

‘We have created a flowchart which lists all the possible scenarios. Employees should check it if they are, for example, considering a new international collaboration, planning a visit or hiring an employee from abroad. If any of the listed scenarios apply to you, you should go through the flowchart. And if you can answer any of the included questions with ‘yes’ or if you are not sure about the answer, you should contact us, the Knowledge Safety Team. We meet every six weeks to discuss cases and procedures. People can contact us directly before any contract or agreement is signed.’

Does this apply only to new collaborations or also to existing partnerships?

‘Existing partnerships don’t need to be checked at the moment, but we will check them when an agreement is ending, for instance. We certainly don’t want people to stop everything. International collaboration is part of being a scientist, but we need to be careful about all potential risks, as well as benefits. We need to consider both sides.’

How would non-compliance be handled? What are the sanctions?

‘Overall, it is the UT’s responsibility. The university could be fined. However, when individuals are involved in criminal activities or espionage, they are liable as well.’

The policy states that ‘These risks are not merely hypothetical, multiple incidents were observed at the UT in the past.’ What were they?

‘For example, there was a professor who wanted to supervise a PhD student who was also affiliated with a university on the sanctions list in Iran. We simply cannot do that, even if it would an external PhD candidate. We also had to prevent some collaborations with partners with possible military connections.’

The policy is now active. What do you hope its impact will be?

‘We don’t want to make life difficult for UT staff. What we really hope is to support them instead. We want to help them with their questions and show that we are a responsible organisation. Then we can also help shape the discourse on a national level and show that ‘knowledge safety and export control’ are not only about preventing risks, but also about facilitating benefits for science.’

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