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Risk assessments required to apply for NSERC’s Alliance Grants program, federal government announces

Guidelines to be expanded to other granting agencies in the near future.


Researchers applying for funding under the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Alliance Grants program will now have to complete a security risk assessment as part of their application if the work involves a private sector partner, the federal government announced Monday.

In a news release, it said NSERC will conduct the risk assessments on a case-by-case basis in consultation with national security agencies and federal departments. Projects that have identified risks must also include mitigation measures.

“Projects that are deemed high risk, or where the risk cannot be mitigated, will not be funded,” said François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry.

The risk assessments are part of a package of new national security guidelines for research partnerships the government developed in consultation with the Government of Canada-Universities Working Group to protect Canadian research and intellectual property against foreign interference, espionage and theft.

‘Conduct research safely’

“I think today’s announcement was an effort to address a particular set of challenges and it does that,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs), which is a member of the working group that also includes the U15 group of research universities, all federal funding agencies, several federal government departments and Canadian security agencies. “Our main effort is to make sure that Canadians can conduct research safely and in recognition of changing security requirements,” he added.

Mr. Davidson said he doesn’t expect the new measures will delay the approval process of the Alliance Grants program. “We understand that [NSERC is] ramping up to be able to continue to process applications in a timely manner.”

Gilles Patry, president of the U15, said the additional work required to complete the grants is not meant to hinder international research collaborations.

“We don’t want this to have a chilling effect on the research initiatives that faculty members are well known to develop. Researchers are entrepreneurs. They want to work with the private sector. They want to collaborate,” he said. “And, you know, this pandemic has shown us that research partnerships and research collaboration and international research collaboration is critically important.”

The government said the risk assessment process will be expanded to all federal granting councils and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation in the near future.

While the government didn’t specify a timeline, Davidson said everyone on the working group wants to see whether the new guidelines are effective before expanding them more broadly across the different funding agencies.

Patry said the working group agreed the expansion would be phased in gradually. He said the guidelines are new for NSERC, the universities and the researchers.

Patry added the group asked the federal government to provide researchers and universities with advice when the grant applications are being developed, similar to what the British government did a few weeks ago when it launched a research portal to help researchers and institutions deal with international research partnerships.

The working group also asked for financial support to help deal with the additional workload the new regulations will place on institutions and researchers. “We don’t know yet what that level might be, but I think due consideration to the financial support will be important,” Patry said.

‘Hostile actors’

Davidson and Patry both emphasized the new regulations are not targeted to a specific country or company.  The federal government was recently criticized for helping to fund research projects through NSERC with Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co., at Canadian universities.

The federal government said in its statement that the guidelines “are intended to help prevent foreign interference, espionage, and unwanted knowledge transfer that could contribute to advancements in the military, security and intelligence capabilities of states or groups that pose a threat to Canada.”

In September 2020, the government issued a policy statement in which it expressed concern about the “actions of hostile actors targeting COVID-19 related research in Canada.” It encouraged all members of the research community to take extra precautions.

At the time, the federal government said it had instructed all federal research funding agencies to review their security policies, and to promote best practices and tools available to the researchers they fund to protect their work.

“Espionage and foreign interference activities by both human and cyber actors pose real threats to Canadian research integrity, intellectual property and business interests,” it said. “Canadian research organizations should remain vigilant and ensure that they are applying best practices for securing their research and intellectual property, including employing strong cybersecurity and physical security protocols.”

Last March, the government followed up with another statement expanding the warning to include all Canadian research, saying it was becoming “increasingly targeted by espionage and foreign interference activities.”

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