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Knowledge security

Responsible international collaboration

International research collaboration is a catalyst for excellent research. With this as a guiding principle, the FWO's international policy aims to offer researchers in Flanders, at every career stage, a wide range of ways to establish international contacts, exchange views and/or collaborate.

Admittedly, that kind of openness also comes with a number of challenges. In the current context of geopolitical power shifts, including through influence and interference, it is not only scientific values such as academic freedom, research integrity and research ethics that come under pressure, but there is also a danger of undesired knowledge transfer and misuse of research results. This is because scientific knowledge and resulting applications are increasingly used strategically as one of the ways to show strength globally in politics, economics and/or defence, with possible negative consequences for the security and innovation capacity of Flanders, Belgium and Europe. The above aspects are usually given the heading 'Knowledge Security'. This topic is also receiving increasing attention internationally and in Flanders, and is actively followed up by the Department of Economy, Science and Innovation.

The FWO wants to assume a role of raising awareness and encourage researchers to assess potential risks with each application without touching the core of freedom and openness in research.

What is knowledge security?

We understand both the undesired transfer of knowledge and technology, interference, and misuse of research results as potential breaches of knowledge security.

  1. Undesired knowledge transfer: here there may be a hidden agenda involving deliberate collaboration to acquire strategically important knowledge in order to gain an economic or military advantage, for example, through the development of certain technologies with possible danger, for example to a country’s/region’s security and innovation capacity. These are usually domains in which the targeted country/institution/researcher excels. In extreme situations, this can also involve espionage and violations of intellectual property rights.
    Keeping good cyber hygiene is also crucial for minimising the risks of undesired knowledge transfer, in addition to a thorough risk analysis of your partnerships. Here are some examples of undesired knowledge transfer.
  1. Foreign interference: influencing researchers, research results/publications so as to e.g. justify a policy or unlawful matters or to make certain things unmentionable (such as through self-censorship). This is a way to compromise values such as research integrity and academic freedom. This may include censoring certain research topics. Here are some examples of interference.
  2. Misuse of research results: unethical use of research results that, for example, violate human rights, develop military applications or support criminal activities. Here are some examples of research misuse.

To understand why knowledge security matters, we would like to set out the potential consequences when your research suffers from any of the above breaches:

  • Loss of research data;
  • Competitive disadvantage in your research domain;
  • Loss of intellectual property rights, patent opportunities and potential revenues;
  • Reduced confidence in your research data and results;
  • Legal or administrative consequences;
  • Loss of potential future partnerships;
  • Reputational damage to yourself, your research group and/or your research institution;
  • Economic or competitive disadvantage for Flanders, Belgium and/or Europe.

The FWO’s knowledge security policy

The FWO’s knowledge security policy is made up of four pillars:

  1. Responsible FWO partnerships.

The FWO conducts a thorough risk analysis when entering into new partnerships abroad. Existing partnerships are never tacitly renewed and are regularly evaluated. The Bilateral Research Cooperation Committee (CBOS) is made up of various stakeholders from the Flemish research landscape and is responsible for the risk analysis, evaluation and annual follow-up of these FWO partnerships.

  1. Raising awareness among FWO applicants

To maximise awareness, from 2025 onwards, every FWO application form (ex-ante) with an international dimension will include a concise knowledge security section, called 'Knowledge Security Appraisal' which, using self-assessment, looks for:

  1. Potential knowledge security risks; and
  2. Mitigating measures taken in this context.

The FWO believes that the applicant, regardless of whether it is an application for a fellowship, project, research infrastructure, network or mobility grant, is best placed to assess the potential risks their research collaboration entails. As a researcher you are certainly not alone and, in the event of any doubt, you can contact the contact persons responsible for knowledge security within your host institution.

The panel members concerned review the completed knowledge safety section and have the opportunity to adjust the final risk rating as part of the evaluation process. Specifically, this means that if the panel considers that there is an increased knowledge safety risk and/or the mitigating measures proposed by the researcher are not sufficient, a conditional award is made, which requires a positive knowledge security advice (cf. positive ethical advice) from the host institution before the research (or the relevant part of the research), can commence.

  1. Monitoring and analysis

The reporting (intermediate and ex-post) of funded FWO research will also probe for possible knowledge security violations so that the FWO can monitor this and, where necessary, adjust the FWO knowledge security policy. Knowledge security is systematically monitored by the Bilateral Research Cooperation Committee (CBOS).

  1. Cybersecurity

Any knowledge security policy must contain a solid cyber and information security policy. The FWO therefore pursues a strategy in line with the CCB vision (Centre for Cyber Security Belgium). The FWO also obtained its ISO 27001 certification at the end of 2023.  

Risk analysis

To assess potential risks of undesired knowledge transfer, interference and misuse of research results, the 'Knowledge Security Appraisal' tab of each application form asks questions that focus on the following three aspects:

  1. The topic of your project proposal;
  2. The country(ies) which in any way are involved in your application, whether or not through your collaboration partner(s) and;
  3. The foreign institution(s)/partner(s).

These factors are not independent, and should be considered as a whole when analysing risk. A final risk classification is then suggested automatically based on the answers: no risk, medium risk or high risk. In the last category, high risk, a conditional award is made, which requires a positive knowledge security advice (cf. positive ethical advice) from the host institution before the research (or the relevant part of the research) can commence. It that respect it is important to seek advice as soon as possible (preferable before submission) by contacting the contact persons responsible for knowledge security within your host institution.

Timing: In 2024 this policy will be tested and evaluated during the call for bilateral research projects with China, before being implemented FWO-wide from 2025 onwards.

Mitigating measures

Having performed the risk analysis, you may come to the conclusion that there are some knowledge security risks associated with your research proposal. You then ask yourself whether this will jeopardise your research proposal. That certainly does not have to be the case. The FWO primarily wants you to be aware of the possible risks involved in your research application and to act accordingly. We are therefore happy to suggest some mitigating measures so that you can still proceed with your research and collaboration in a responsible manner.

In cases where the risks are particularly high, e.g. a sensitive research topic in collaboration with an institution that is closely linked to the government in a country known to violate human rights, the relevant FWO evaluation panel may still decide, despite the specified mitigating measures, that a positive knowledge security advice from the relevant committee within your host institution is required. The FWO also has a number of binding restrictions on international collaboration that you can consult here.

Non-exhaustive list of good practices and mitigating measures:

  • Transparency: Always be transparent about your research relations, and this both with the FWO and your host institution. If your collaboration partners change in any way, always inform us.
  • Partnership agreement: As soon as you enter into partnerships within your project, a partnership agreement is mandatory. This partnership agreement must be signed 9 months after the start of the project. For high-risk projects (in terms of knowledge security), it is a good idea to discuss and conclude the content of this agreement in advance. Determine together with your partner(s) the potential value of expected research results and what needs to be done to protect them. What types of IP can the project generate and how can you anticipate these? Ensure that all collaboration partners agree in advance how the IP will be arranged. Keep in mind that policies, regulations and their enforcement may differ depending on the country and institution. Where relevant, contact the Technology Transfer Offices (TTO) of your host institution.
    Not only is it important to include intellectual property rights in such partnership agreements, but also details on how and when which research steps will be taken, including how the data and details of the research will be shared (via publications, on conferences, when teaching, on social media and personal communication). Keep also the applicable GDPR legislation in mind. Work out a data management plan with your partner(s).
    Always keep an open dialogue with your partner(s) that includes the security aspects of your research. Does each partner agree with the (potential) applications of the research results? Include this in the partnership agreement as well.
  • Access control: Make sure your research, data and IP rights are adequately protected, both physically and online. Only give access to your research, both physical and online, to those who really need it. Ensure proper cyber security, even when travelling. Make sure also to call on the expertise available at your host institution.
  • Measures when travelling internationally: Probably your project also involves travelling. Bear in mind that, if you travel in the context of research that involves knowledge security risks, you will need to pay extra attention. You will find yourself in a different context where values, norms as well as legal protection are different from what you are used to in Belgium. Malicious actors can and will use this to their advantage. Prepare well for such travel and read the necessary travel advice about the country concerned. Good cyber hygiene is also crucial when travelling abroad. You can also find more info in this brochure from the Belgian State Security.
  • Cybersecurity: The nature of your collaborations, including how you use and share (research) data online, requires a tailored cyber security approach in line with your host institution's security policy.
  • Inviting visiting researchers or hire international researchers securely: Knowledge security issues should also be considered when hiring staff or briefly hosting visiting researchers on projects. It is a good idea to check with your host institution whether there is a visitor protocol for foreign visiting researchers in general and those from high-risk countries in particular. When recruiting, it is also best to consult the HR department of your host institution, which is best placed to check with you whether certain positions and profiles require additional screening.

Institutional restrictions on scientific cooperation in FWO funding instruments

More information on the binding institutional restrictions in terms of scientific collaboration that are currently in force in the FWO funding channels can be consulted here.