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Universities welcome clarity on national security rules

New policy includes lists of sensitive research areas and foreign institutions considered national security risks.


After much uncertainty and multiple delays over the past year, university administrators are welcoming the clarity provided by a new federal policy on research security.

“I don’t love this kind of thing, but if we had to have something because we felt we were under threat of some kind, this is a much clearer version of what it is now,” said Martha Crago, vice-principal for research and innovation at McGill University.

Almost a year after three federal ministers announced a crackdown on research collaborations with risky foreign partners, the government has provided universities with a specific policy on which research areas will be under extra scrutiny and which partners to avoid.

“While Canadian-led research is defined by its excellence and collaborative nature, its openness can make it a target for foreign influence, increasing the potential risks for research and development efforts to be misappropriated to the detriment of national security,” read a statement from Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Health Mark Holland, and Minister of Public Safety Dominic LeBlanc. “That’s why our government is taking a key step in protecting Canada’s world-class research.”

The new policy on sensitive technology research and affiliations of concern features two interacting lists: one for sensitive technology research areas and one for “named research organizations” (NRO) that are ineligible to take part in collaborations funded with federal grants. Both lists will be updated regularly.

Researchers applying for funds from any of the three federal granting councils or the Canadian Foundation for Innovation will be required to check whether their work is intended to advance any of the sensitive technologies. If so, all researchers named in the grant must attest that they are not affiliated with or are receiving funding or in-kind support from any of the listed institutions.

The new policy takes effect for all Tri-Council and CFI grant competitions starting May 1, though the government “may take research affiliations into account immediately as part of research funding decision-making processes, should risks be identified,” the policy states. And although it only applies to federally funded grants, a government official said the policy offers “clear guidance” to universities on where to focus their research security efforts.

Ian Milligan, associate vice-president for research oversight and analysis at the University of Waterloo, said the two lists provide needed predictability for researchers and research support staff. “It’s helpful to see clearly enumerated lists of research areas and research organizations we need to be careful around,” he said.

The sensitive technology research areas list includes 11 broad categories “of advanced and emerging technologies that are important to Canadian research and development, but may also be of interest to foreign state, state-sponsored and non-state actors, seeking to misappropriate Canada’s technological advantages to our detriment”, such as advanced digital infrastructure technology, and quantum science and technology. These are broken down into more specific subcategories, with examples of the kinds of technologies that are of particular concern.

Dr. Crago said the new technology list is a big improvement on its previous iteration, which was so broad, it covered just about everything. “Some big areas have been taken out, which is reassuring, though you need to look closer at the technologies to see if some bits and pieces are still there,” she said. A broad section on “ocean science and technology,” for example, has been removed, but the specific area of underwater sensor networks is still listed under “advanced sensing and surveillance.”

Tamer Özsu, a computer scientist at U of Waterloo, is concerned that some of the definitions are still too expansive. It seems that all of computer science is considered a sensitive technology area, he said, and that including databases in the definition of “in-kind support” is short-sighted. “Many of the datasets about the COVID virus came from China. I am sure colleagues can identify many interesting datasets created and maintained by these institutions,” he said. “What value does it provide to Canada to prevent Canadian researchers to use these databases?”

The NRO list, which was drawn up using both public and classified sources and in consultation with “like-minded countries”, according to a government official, lists 103 universities, research institutes or laboratories connected to military, national defence, or state security entities that could pose a risk to Canada’s national security. The official stressed that it is “country-agnostic” and based solely on risk analysis. Nevertheless, just three countries are represented on the list: Russia, Iran and China.

Stephanie Carvin, who studies national security issues at Carleton University, said the list is shorter than she expected. “It’s interesting not to see any other countries included, such as ones in Central Asia or elsewhere that do a lot of business with China,” she said. “But starting small like this is not a terrible approach.” Of the 103 institutions listed, 85 are in China; 12 in Iran and six are in Russia.

For many on the list, their reason for inclusion is obvious – they directly refer to the military in their name, such as China’s Air Force Research Institute. But others are more subtle. The Beijing Institute of Technology, for example, is likely included because it is one of the Seven Sons of National Defence, a grouping of public universities widely believed to have close scientific ties to the Chinese military.

But Dr. Özsu, who has collaborated with a colleague in one of the named institutions, said researchers are entitled to know the reasoning behind the list. “In a democratic society like Canada where there are checks and balances on governmental institutions, the public and the academic community deserve a clear explanation of why each of these are on the list,” he said.

It’s not clear how many Canadian researchers are currently collaborating with the listed institutions, but Dr. Crago does not suspect the numbers are high. “Most of the NROs are not institutions that we have partnerships with, or might be thinking about partnerships with,” she said.

This new policy will be enforced through a random sampling of grant applications to check for compliance after funding has been awarded. Any breaches will be dealt with via the Tri-Councils’ responsible conduct of research framework. Dr. Milligan is pleased that the policy relies on existing processes for enforcement, and that he is  “confident we’ll be able to handle any issues in a way that is already on the books.”

While the policy does make some things clearer, both Drs. Crago and Milligan said there are many lingering questions that will need to be resolved, particularly around how affiliations are defined, what is required to officially terminate an affiliation, how graduate students are treated and what defines “advancing” a technology. “There are always going to be strange grey cases that we’ll have to figure out,” said Dr. Crago.

In many cases, those questions will be dealt with by the new research security centre, which was launched at the same time as the policy. Dr. Carvin said it is imperative that the government put in place a way to aggregate the questions and adjust the policy as needed to ensure it is fair and transparent. “We are already hearing anecdotally about people being left off applications and other discrimination,” she said. “There will be people who suffer, and that needs to be addressed.”

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