New Research looks into safeguarding UK research and innovation secrets

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How to protect UK research and innovation against economic espionage will be the outcome of a research project led by Dr Nicola Searle, the UK’s only expert on the economics of economic espionage.

Portrait of Dr Nicola Searle

Dr Nicola Searle, Institute for Cultural and Creative Entrepreneurship (ICCE)

Concerns over the risk of intellectual property – particularly trade secrets in areas of research deemed critical for national security - falling into the hands of hostile states was highlighted by the Government recently. This illegal acquisition of trade secrets is known as economic espionage.


Innovation flourishes when knowledge flows freely and firms can recruit the best. A focus on economic espionage, and awareness programs to encourage researchers to work with ‘trusted’ collaborators guards against economic espionage; but by raising barriers to global recruitment and collaboration, innovation may suffer. Get this balance wrong, and innovation gets thrown out with the bath water.

Dr Nicola Searle

Dr Searle’s research aims to find this balance, examining when trade secret theft is likely to occur, what technologies are particularly affected and how businesses respond. The research will develop evidence and insights into secrecy loss to support both innovation and future innovation policy making. Balancing the tension between both the need to foster the flow of knowledge and research collaborations with the need to protect against trade secret theft will be a key outcome of her research.

In April then Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden voiced concern that the higher education sector provided “a gap in the national security armour”. Universities reliance on foreign funding, Mr Dowden said could become a dependency through which they could be “influenced, exploited or even coerced” into divulging sensitive .

Fears of hostile state activities aimed at acquiring intellectual property by stealth have heightened recently. As a result, the UK and US governments have adopted new legislation. Last summer the UK’s National Security Act made the theft of trade secrets to benefit a foreign power a criminal offence. That innovation is covered in legislation on national security is an indication as to how serious the situation has become.

Amidst the sabre rattling that has accompanied the debate on intellectual property and protecting sensitive research, Dr Searle’s work aims to support the development of a proportionate response to threats and an evidence base to policy making.

“By getting a better understanding of the loss of secrets we will be able support the flow of knowledge that is critical to the UK innovation eco system. The aim is to produce industry specific insights with a focus on trade secrets in sensitive technologies.”

The project is an international collaboration with Professor Maurizio Borghi, Department of Law, University of Turin and Dr. Bernhard Ganglmair, Economist at the ZEW - Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research, Mannheim and Associate Professor at the University of Mannheim.  It is supported by the Innovation & Research Caucus (IRC) at Oxford Brookes Business School as part of its first Flexible Fund Open Call.