The Security Intelligence Service has approached university lecturers asking for help to stop foreign states gathering information on "weapons of mass destruction", says the union representing tertiary workers.

Tertiary Education Union president Dr Tom Ryan has been angered by the approach.

"The SIS pretends that it should be considered normal for staff to report back to a spy agency. But such a practice would undermine the legislated autonomy of our institutions, including the guarantee of academic freedom.

"It also may lead to some members of the academic community being targeted because of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity," Dr Ryan said.

He said the Director of the SIS, Dr Warren Tucker, has sent a letter to university managers.

Dr Tucker released a statement back in August regarding the pamphlet.

"We are inviting NZ exporters, manufacturers, scientists, researchers and academics to remain alert to suspicious advances and seek advice on any concerns they may have," he said at the time.

Dr Tucker said a wide range of "seemingly benign" industrial goods, technology and expertise can help people develop weapons.

He said the pamphlet provided information for scientists and exporters to help them identify people who may be producing weapons.

"As our outreach effort increases, we hope to increase the number of community contacts who are able to provide expert assistance on proliferation issues; other contacts may provide investigative leads and disruption opportunities," Dr Tucker said.

Dr Ryan said the letter to universities alludes to a meeting between the spy agency and the New Zealand Vice Chancellor's Committee.

He said the SIS has also sent out a brochure called "A Guide to Weapons of Mass Destruction: Your role in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".

Dr Ryan said the brochure warns scientists and researchers to look out for people who could be trying to learn how to make "weapons of mass destruction".

He said the pamphlet has been distributed widely and includes fax, email, and web contacts for the SIS.

"If any tertiary staff member sees something they suspect is illegal they should contact the police. Otherwise their job is to advance and share knowledge; it is not to create an atmosphere where colleagues and students don't know whether they are being spied on or not. That can only inhibit genuine education and research," said Dr Ryan.

- NZ HERALD STAFF