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Researchers decry a lack of clarity under national security risk assessments

Concern rises about potential research chill as new rules are extended across federal research-funding agencies.


A pilot project by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to identify and minimize national security risks in federally funded research will soon roll out at all federal research-funding bodies. But researchers whose grants were rejected under the pilot say the process was confusing and lacked transparency.

The pilot required some applications for NSERC’s collaborative Alliance Grants to undergo an additional screening by national security agencies. The research council reports that around four per cent of the more than 1,000 applications received by the program were sent for extra review to identify potential national security risks, under the National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships. National security officials determined that most of those – 32 out of 48 – should not be funded.

Chad Gaffield, head of the U15 group of research-intensive universities, co-chaired the working group that developed the guidelines. He said that while research with foreign partners is a particular strength of Canada, better oversight of those partnerships is needed. “Sometimes collaborations can be used against us, and have unintended negative consequences,” said Dr. Gaffield.

While researchers accept that those risks exist and need to be mitigated, they have not been given enough information to navigate the rules, said Tamer Özsu, a computer science professor at the University of Waterloo and director of the Waterloo-Huawei Joint Innovation Lab.

Four projects intended for Dr. Özsu’s lab were among those rejected by the security services under the NSERC pilot, he said. They covered topics as diverse as cloud computing, human-computer interaction and a smartphone app for eye disease therapy. The only common thread was that they involved collaboration with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.

All four were rejected with the same generic response: “The assessment concluded that the proposed research partnership poses unmitigable risks that could: cause undue harm to the Canadian economy, Canadian military and defence systems, and its like-minded partners, and their security and intelligence interests; and compromise the Canadian research ecosystem and/or its reputation as a safe and secure place to conduct cutting edge research.”

One of the principal investigators of a rejected grant application had a meeting with NSERC to clarify the reasons for the rejection, which Dr. Özsu also attended. But they were told that no further information was available, as it was classified. “It was useless to have that meeting,” he said.

He noted that the biggest issue for researchers is that they have received little clarity on what research topics might be a cause for concern going forward, or what they can do to mitigate the risks. And the list of sensitive research areas in the government’s guidelines is unhelpfully broad, Dr. Özsu added. “I challenge anyone to find any STEM area that would not fall into something on that list.”

Government tightens restrictions on research partnerships

The NSERC pilot is forming the backbone of tightened rules around foreign partnerships that will soon apply to competitions at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The federal government announced in February that it would be increasing restrictions on research collaborations that could pose a risk to national security. “Grant applications that involve conducting research in a sensitive research area will not be funded if any of the researchers working on the project are affiliated with a university, research institute or laboratory connected to military, national defence or state security entities of foreign state actors that pose a risk to our national security,” the government said in a statement signed by three ministers.

While no specific institutions or countries were mentioned, it is widely understood that labs and companies in China are of particular concern due to extensive but often murky links to the military, and suspected abuses of intellectual property rights – in November 2022, the RCMP arrested a Hydro-Québec employee for allegedly stealing trade secrets from the utility on behalf of China. Earlier in the year, the Government of Canada banned Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE from Canadian 5G networks due to “serious concerns” they “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.”

Paul Dufour, a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said the vague joint statement from the ministers and a lack of more specific guidelines on what research areas and potential partners are off-limits risks sending a chill into the system. “Researchers are left guessing whether a given partnership is worth pursuing,” he said.

A spokesperson for NSERC said the agency refers applications for national security risk assessment on a case-by-case basis, and that funders are working with national security agencies and the research community to implement the new rules. The agency also released a statement noting that “clear guidance will be provided to the research community, to ensure they can appropriately comply with this enhanced policy.”

Mr. Dufour is also concerned that the national security rules increase the bureaucratic burden on researchers applying for grants. “The risk assessment form is quite an extensive series of questions,” he said. “And that’s layered on top of forms about research ethics, open science, safety and a whole series of others. It’s becoming quite heavy in terms of the process.”

Charmaine Dean, vice-president of research and international at U of Waterloo, said the federal risk assessment process can be “terrifically complicated to navigate” for researchers. But universities have staff who can help them through it. “We tell them time and again that they are not alone,” she said.

Applying the risk assessment to every research grant portfolio, however, will be impossible without more specifics from the government on what areas of research and foreign institutions or companies are considered a risk, she said. Dr. Dean and other university administrators are in talks with the government, seeking more clarity on the rules. “Over the next few months we expect some decisions,” she said.

Dr. Gaffield said that as researchers and universities get used to the new regime, the risk assessments will become a routine part of the application process, like ethics reviews. And resources to help the academic community understand and navigate the system are being put in place. “We want to make research as open as possible, and as secure as necessary,” he said. “We don’t want to have a small number of risky projects undermine our opportunities for world-leading research.”

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  1. Evan Light / March 30, 2023 at 01:55

    Potential chilling effect indeed! When this was first announced last year by our VP research & innovation, I asked “What about those of us who do critical research on the very intelligence agencies that would be vetting us? And do so in collaboration with researchers & civil society organizations around the world?” It will be interesting & telling to see what happens when this spreads to SSHRC.