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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 12:30 GMT
Scientists criticise research restrictions
handcuffs, BBC
Scientists face restrictions on their right to research
Scientists fear they could soon have to ask official permission to publish research papers as the UK Government drafts laws that give it the power to vet their work.

The new powers are contained within the wide-ranging Export Control Bill that is currently being debated in Parliament.

Academics have warned that if the bill becomes legislation, it would mean the end of many of the freedoms to collaborate and publish that scientists enjoy today.

They also fear that the bill could impose a huge bureaucratic burden on scientists and make Britain unattractive to foreign students and scientists.

Bill to licence

The Export Control Bill extends government scrutiny to the "intangibles" that researchers might be transferring, by publishing or teaching, to foreign powers.

Before now export controls have applied only to hardware. The Export Control Bill extends that scrutiny to software, research papers and perhaps even course work taught to foreign students.

A spokeswoman for the DTI said the new controls would not apply to information already in the public domain or that is being placed in the public domain.

"The bill is about preventing exports that might threaten national security such as weapons of mass destruction," she said.

The bill was intended to extend scrutiny to information swapped electronically about hardware already subject to export controls, said the spokeswoman.

"It's to do with e-mail, faxes and transfer of information," she said.

But Eminent University of Cambridge cryptographic expert Ross Anderson fears the bill could have potentially damaging effects on some scientists' ability to collaborate with foreign researchers and whom they teach.

On webpages created to explain the bill Professor Anderson warned that it could "seriously impair academic freedom".

As drafted, the bill demands that scientists in a wide range of fields must have their research rubber-stamped by officials before they reveal it in scientific journals.

The government is also seeking to keep the list of sensitive subjects under continuous review and to add technologies or subjects as it sees fit.

Ross Anderson
Anderson: Controls will impair academic freedom
Foreign students using hardware deemed "sensitive" or being taught subjects covered by the bill's restrictions would have to be licensed, as would collaborations with foreign scientists.

The DTI said scientists would be consulted about future legislation that defined the exact workings of the bill.

"Academics will have a chance to have their say and it will be taken into consideration," she said.

Peter Cotgreave, director of the pressure group Save British Science, said he had seen no good arguments to explain why the government was pushing for such sweeping powers.

"Science was globalised before that was ever a word," he told BBC News Online.

"To try and prevent the export of scientific knowledge and information runs totally counter to the whole ethos of science," he said.

Professor Fred Piper, director of the information security group at Royal Holloway College in London, said he was not aware of the bill, but said if early reports were accurate all researchers should be worried.

The DTI has reassured academics that it has no plans to exercise the sweeping powers to vet and veto research papers contained in the bill. But Dr Cotgreave said reassurances now are worth nothing because a future government could decide it did need to exercise the rights granted by the bill.

Ironically some countries, such as the US, that used to operate such restrictive regimes have now dropped them after they proved unworkable.

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