By Ewan Somerville
Daily Telegraph – 22 July 2023
Students are "magnetic targets" for spies, the head of MI5 has warned. Ken McCallum said that "hostile actors" such as Russia, Iran and China were attempting to steal research secrets from Britain's universities "with dispiriting regularity". He cautioned that the "systemic competition" to get ahead in science and technology is "every bit as far-reaching" as space race, economic and military success during the Cold War.
"If your field of research is relevant to, say, advanced materials, or quantum computing, or AI, or biotech – to name but a few – your work will be of interest to people employed by states who do not share our values,"
the domestic security chief told the annual Bowman lecture at the University of Glasgow last month. Mr McCallum was speaking ahead of a report last week by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC), which warned that some universities had turned a "blind eye" to the risks posed by China while accepting money from those linked to the Communist regime.
Sir Julian Lewis, the committee chairman, said China had been
"particularly effective at using its money and influence to penetrate or buy academia in order to ensure its international narrative is advanced and criticism suppressed".
MI5's investigations are spotting such attacks taking place in "subtle" ways such as
"the attractive conference invitation or collaboration proposal",
"strategic partnerships, donations with strings, investment proposals or jointly funded research",
or even through postgraduate students themselves. Mr McCallum warned students and lecturers:
"Precisely because our great universities are so great and rightly prize openness, they are magnetic targets for espionage and manipulation."
He stressed that
"security is a requirement for research integrity and a prerequisite for openness rather than set in opposition to it".
"Whether we like it or not, universities are participants in the global contest I'm describing – and need to make conscious choices about the role they're going to play."
Students and academics should therefore
"be alive to these issues and up for the conversation"
"make the effort – with our support – to make those difficult choices consciously"
when it comes to the balance between openness and security.
Mr McCallum, who grew up in Glasgow, studied mathematics at the university. He was appointed head of MI5 in 2020, taking over as director general from Sir Andrew Parker.