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Rishi Sunak Announces Inquiry into UK Universities' Sharing of Drone Technology with Iranian Researchers and Institutions, Acting on Investigative Journalism

on Friday, 23 June 2023.

The Prime Minister announced in Parliament on Midsummer's Day that the Department for Business and Trade was investigating UK universities mentioned by The Jewish Chronicle (TJC) as having shared drone technology with Iranian scientists and institutions.

TJC had reported that professors at prominent UK universities had co-authored research papers with Iranians or Iranian institutions on aspects of technology that would improve the military performance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). An unlicensed sharing with foreign persons of listed technology would have serious consequences for both the professor and her university. So once again, the application of the UK's strategic export controls to technology in addition to tangible items is emphasised.

UAVs are mentioned in:

  • the UK's Military List,
  • the UK's stand-alone list of sensitive dual-use items, and
  • the EU's Dual-Use Regulation which the UK inherited as it stood at 31.12.2020 and has updated since.

The export of UAV technology to Iran, precedent to its export of UAVs to Russia, will possibly be covered also by the UK's trade sanctions against Russia. It is not always simple for a university to analyse under this legislation an item of technology, such as some of that underlying UAVs, that might be intended specifically for civilian use but which is amenable to military use. Nevertheless, the Department's inquiry reinforces the need for universities to make this effort. The specific military design of some UAV technology should be easier to spot.

TJC's investigation apparently involved reviewing hundreds of papers published by UK professors on UAV topics, sifting for mention of Iranian co-authors or financial support. Why is this a permissible approach given that technology which 'is in the public domain' is excepted from the export controls under article 18 of The Export Control Order 2008? It is a permissible approach in our view because it is necessary to share technology with one's foreign co-author before publication takes place; the published paper may include only a fraction of the prior shared work. Publication in principle does not cleanse a prior unlicensed export of an item of technology that is not yet in the public domain.

UK Government guidance, however, is not crystal clear on this point, and may be the reason for the oft-stated view that "published research is not subject to export controls". On the other hand, the European Union has issued guidance (albeit inapplicable to universities in the United Kingdom other than Northern Ireland) states clearly that the publication of research does not automatically cleanse a prior unlicensed transfer. At page 'L 338/41' it states: "A publication including technology that meets the thresholds for dual-use control needs an export authorisation. The intention to publish (and thus the act of publishing) is not enough to be considered to be in the public domain and is therefore not exempted from control. The export control authorities rely on the due diligence of research organisation (sic) to screen prepublications in sensitive research areas.".

The other exception for academics, for transferring technology that constitutes 'basic scientific research', is unlikely to apply to the applied research typical in publications about drones.

Not only is the raising of the Department's investigation, but the manner of its triggering (an investigative journalist's review of publicly available research papers), should be of interest to those UK universities engaged in STEM research on topics covered by the UK's strategic export controls.

For more information, please contact Thomas Dick, in our Corporate team on  020 7665 0971, or complete the form below.

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