The federal government’s recent decision to ban Chinese electronics companies from Canadian 5G networks has highlighted concerns that tightening national security rules are having a chilling effect on research in Canada.
In theory the new ban, which restricts the use of Huawei and ZTE components in federally regulated telecommunications networks, should not affect university research. It does not cover individual devices, nor target research collaborations with the companies. And it should have provided more clarity for researchers, said Tamer Özsu, director of the Waterloo-Huawei Joint Innovation Lab. “The federal government has taken a political decision and publicly announced it,” he said. “Now, the government is accountable for that decision and the discussion can take place in the public space addressing pros and cons.”
But in practice, it is contributing to a culture in which universities no longer want to accept funding from companies like Huawei. “The intelligence agencies are creating this atmosphere that leads university administrators to kill research projects and collaborations without taking a clear decision for which they would be accountable, at least in theory, to their faculty members,” said Dr. Özsu.
The U of Waterloo lab, for example, was set up in 2018 with $6.5 million from Huawei to support research on data management, programming languages and compiler technologies, among other topics. It has since funded 31 projects by 38 different faculty members, the majority of whom were early-career researchers. The lab was originally funded for three years, but university administrators have still not signed off on an extension proposed in June 2021, meaning the lab has not been able to start any new projects. The uncertainty, and the general sense that collaborating with companies like Huawei is somehow frowned upon, has led colleagues to pull out of potential collaborations, said Dr. Özsu.
Nick Manning, associate vice-president of communications at U of Waterloo, said the university does not normally comment on contractual matters. But he added that they are “closely following” the legislation. “No university has the ability to adequately assess national security situations, and as we receive advice from the government of Canada we act on that advice,” Mr. Manning said. “We have reached out to the appropriate government of Canada officials to seek their advice on this matter.”
No plans to end partnerships
Huawei spends about $25 million a year on research projects at dozens of Canadian universities. A spokesperson for the University of Toronto said that Huawei has sponsored about 150 projects by 42 researchers at the university, worth around $18 million over the past five years, and the university has no plans to end those partnerships unless the federal government tells them to. “The recent decision by the Canadian government is not directed at Canadian universities or the sponsorship of research in Canada,” they said. “In the event there are changes to government guidance regarding research sponsorship, we would of course respond and comply.”
McGill University, meanwhile, has a “very limited number” of research partnerships with Huawei at present, according to Claire Loewen, a spokesperson for the university. “As with all Canadian universities, McGill complies with federal guidelines and regulations on research partnerships. At this time no decision has been made on these current research initiatives,” she said.
The chill on research with companies like Huawei actually started long before the government announced the ban, said Christopher Parsons, who studies telecommunications and national security in the Citizen Lab at the U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs. In July 2021, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council launched the National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships, which require all research project applications to NSERC’s Alliance program involving a private-sector partner to be assessed for potential national security risks.
Applicants should be “mindful of the government of Canada’s serious concerns about organizations, such as Huawei and ZTE, who could be compelled to comply with extrajudicial directions from foreign governments in ways that would conflict with Canadian laws or would be detrimental to Canadian interests,” said a spokesperson for NSERC.
Dr. Parsons and Dr. Özsu said many of the questions in the security assessment – such as whether any collaborators have connections to foreign intelligence agencies, or whether the applicant has read and understands the Export Canada Act – are difficult for university researchers to answer. “These are not people who are trained to be experts in this field,” said Dr. Parsons.
Vague rules on risk assessment
And there has been no clarity from the intelligence community on what criteria will be used to assess the risks, said Dr. Özsu. “If there are genuine concerns – and I’m sure there are – it’s incumbent on them to say what they are, and what we need to avoid,” he said.
The best practices for mitigating the risks suggested in the guidelines also don’t make a lot of sense from a university perspective, said Dr. Parsons. For example, they suggest that if a graduate student is staying late in the lab accessing more information than they formally require, they should be closely monitored as a potential risk – though Dr. Parsons said it is much more likely they are just an exceptional student trying to get ahead.
“It’s not malicious, it’s well-intentioned, but it fundamentally misunderstands how a university operates,” he said. “It risks casting a very broad net, and academics in Canada are rightly concerned.”
While the NSERC guidelines are only supposed to apply to grants with matching federal funding, Dr. Özsu said the chilling effect is trickling down to provincial funding as well, and university administrators are deferring to federal concerns even for entirely private grants. “It’s dangerous, the moment we give intelligence agencies that much control, even if it is implicit, over our research agenda, that’s bad,” he said. “We punch above our weight in Canada because we collaborate, and this has the potential to erode those collaborations.”