University Research Programmes Under Threat From Cyber Attacks

Hackers exploit lack of IT investment to target scientific, medical, economic and defence research  

  • In 93 percent of cases, research programmes have been commissioned directly by UK government sources, with almost a third of research in the interests of national security 
  • One in 10 respondents ‘strongly agree’ a successful attack on their research could have a harmful impact on the lives of UK citizens 
  • One in four believe their security and defence research may have already been infiltrated 
  • And over half (53 percent) say a cyberattack on their institution has led to research ending up in foreign hands   

 VMware and Dell EMC today reveal findings from a research study regarding the scale of the challenge UK universities are facing to keep their academic research safe, as cybercriminals target scientific (54 percent), medical (50 percent), economic (37 percent) and defence research (33 percent). In 93 percent of cases, research programmes have been commissioned directly by UK government sources, with almost a third of respondents stating their research is in the interests of national security. In light of this, and the threat to which programmes are under, one in 10 strongly agree a successful attack could have a harmful impact on the lives of UK citizens.   

Findings from the study also show that one in four (24 percent) UK universities believe their security and defence research may have already been infiltrated, while over half (53 percent) say a cyberattack on their institution has led to research ending up in foreign hands.   

Louise Fellows, Director, Public Sector UK&I at VMware comments, “British universities have long been celebrated around the world for their academic excellence, and the role they play in not only driving technological and social innovation through research, but also advances in defence and security. Keeping pace with today’s sophisticated cyber threats is an enormous challenge. Those responsible for protecting universities and the data that they hold must examine how they can evolve practices and approaches in line with an increasingly complex threat landscape, including cybersecurity as a consideration at every stage of the research process by design.”   

Research generates on average £22m per university surveyed, and is a key source of income for UK universities and their contribution to the UK economy. Protecting that income is vital, particularly when over half the respondents believe that a successful cyberattack on their research data could result in serious financial loss for their institution. Despite an understanding of the financial consequences of successful breaches, and recognition of the obstacles faced to adequately address the cyber security challenge, almost half (49 percent) of the university IT leaders recognise that a lack of IT investment is one of the forces driving the need for more robust cyber security practices.   

In the context of recent state-sponsored attacks targeting national secrets, these findings highlight how an increase in universities’ cyber security spend is important, not only because of the high percentage of programmes commissioned by UK government sources, but also to the integrity of the research produced by higher education institutions.   

John Chapman, Chief Information Security Officer, UK Public Sector, Dell EMC comments: “In conducting research that may shape the future of the nation and its citizens, universities are under the microscope of some of the world’s most well-resourced and potent cyber attackers. We hope this study will encourage them to look critically at their cyber security readiness. Universities must do more to protect themselves, and the sensitive information they hold, against the ever-expanding range of increasingly sophisticated threats.”