Canada tightens security for university research, affecting ties to China

18 Jan 2024 | News

Ottawa’s new policy creates the West’s most detailed - and public - security procedures for grant applicants, potentially affecting ‘everything under the sun.’  Universities are studying the likely impact

François-Philippe Champagne, Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. Photo: Collision Conf / Flickr

With geopolitical tensions mounting, the Canadian government announced a new security system for university research that aims to prevent tech secrets leaking to key Chinese, Russian or Iranian research institutions.

The new policy – the most detailed security procedures yet made public in the West – would bar federal Canadian funding for “sensitive” research projects linked to any of 103 foreign universities and institutions that the government says “could pose a risk to Canada’s national security.” In future, anyone applying for federal research grants covered by the policy will have to sign an “attestation” that they are compliant. The country’s security services will conduct “random” audits to double-check this is the case.

The rules, a Canadian official said in a press briefing 16 January, could apply in theory to “tens of thousands” of grant applications – but in practice, a much smaller number of research projects would actually be affected. A more precise estimate was unavailable.

The government first signaled its plans for such a policy in February 2023, but the specifics announced this week took many academics by surprise.

The list of “sensitive” technologies is very broad. “It’s almost everything under the sun,” said Philip Landon, interim president and CEO of Universities Canada. Still, because universities have already been raising security gradually over the past six years, “we don’t suspect it will have a huge impact. But the impact won’t be zero, either. I think it’s still too early to tell.”

The impact will also vary by university. “The scope [of the rules] is significant,” said Ian Milligan, an associate vice president at the University of Waterloo, one of Canada’s top tech universities. “It will affect many of our researchers.” He said the university sent a memo about it to faculty just a few hours after the government’s announcement on January 16, and now has “several people working full-time” on understanding and communicating with researchers about it.

Impact on Horizon uncertain

Also unclear is how the rules will affect Canadian collaborations with other, allied institutions, including those Canadians now starting to apply for funding under the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. Some institutions blacklisted by Canada, such as Beihang University, one of the so-called “Seven Sons of National Defense” linked to China’s military, are participants in Horizon projects. While no Canadians are currently involved in those projects, the situation could pose some tricky legal issues for future EU projects that Canadians may join – unless, of course, the EU adopted the same rules.

In response to a Science|Business question, the Canadian innovation ministry said any possible impact on a Horizon Europe project “would depend, among other factors, on whether the Canadian researcher (involved in a Horizon project) has applied for funding related to their project from one of the federal granting agencies” in Canada.

In common with the US, UK, Australia, Japan and other allied governments, the EU is in the midst of tightening its security rules. In Brussels, officials have just closed a public comment period on new security procedures it is considering.  It has already published an online ‘toolkit’ for research security, dropped all Russian grant recipients, and sharply narrowed the topics on which it will fund European research collaborations with China.

In Washington, the security angst is also rising, with both Democratic and Republican politicians accusing China of stealing American technology. The US National Science Foundation is setting up a new clearinghouse on security information for American universities, and is collaborating with Canadian, UK and other allied funders. And this month the Government Accountability Office released a report critiquing the way US government science funders keep track of potential security risks, pointing out that each agency’s public databases list different, or differently named, security risks, making it harder for universities with multiple funding sources to check they’re in the clear.

Among the Western allies, however, an effort is underway to coordinate their research security procedures, according to the Canadian innovation ministry. The ministry statement to Science|Business said the “Five Eyes” countries – US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – had “committed to enhanced coordination” on research security at a ministerial meeting last year, and Canada is currently co-chair of a security group organised by the Group of Seven leading economies.

The ministry added that it considers its own new security system to be a “trailblazer” – “the first among allies to apply specific eligibility requirements to the majority of federally funded grant programmes.” An earlier Canadian security effort begun in 2021 was more narrow, focused on engineering council grant applications that involved private companies. Under that initiative, the ministry said, Canadian security services reviewed 65, or 2.9%, of the relevant grant applications. In all, 38 were denied funding.

A two-step procedure

The new Canadian rules cover all types of federal research grant applications, and will be adopted over the next four months by the country’s federal science and research infrastructure funders. They set out a two-step security process for any applicant: check first if the technology is “sensitive,” and then check if anyone in the research team gets “support” from any of 103 Chinese, Russian or Iranian institutions on a security blacklist. If the answer to both questions is no, then go ahead and apply as normal. If both answers are yes, then don’t bother applying. And if the answer to only the first question is yes, then apply – but be prepared for closer scrutiny.

The first test would affect any grant application that aims to “advance” knowledge in any of the government’s list of 11 “sensitive technology research areas.” These include some obvious fields like weapons research and specialised materials with defence applications (for instance – and as an example of the detail in the rules – materials “having a negative Poisson ratio” that is, which get thick instead of thin when pulled). But it also includes artificial intelligence, quantum computing, various energy technologies and a wide range of biomedical technologies, including nanomaterials for drug delivery, and “gene manipulation or modification in humans to prevent, treat or cure disease.”

If a proposed project is indeed sensitive, applicants need to check that none of the researchers are “affiliated with, or receiving funding or in-kind support” from any of the 103 institutions on the government’s Named Research Organisation List. If they are, the applicant should stop. If they aren’t, the applicant will need to file an “attestation” that the project is okay. If the security services in later audits find there was a “voluntary misrepresentation”, the applicant could have present and future funding cut off, and be subject to an “academic integrity investigation.”

The blacklist includes five Russian military research centres and 12 Iranian institutions, including Tehran’s top-rated Sharif University of Technology. But, notwithstanding official assurances that the policy is “country-agnostic”, by far the bulk of the list focuses on China – and follows a series of allegations in the Canadian press about Chinese-born researchers sending tech secrets back home while working in Canada.

Uncertain impact

It is unclear is how many grant applications will be caught up in the new process, and at what cost to the universities and science generally.

One positive point, university officials said, is that the government will check for problems after rather than before the funding starts, meaning it won’t delay cash flow. But some researchers with long-standing China collaborations that they can’t quickly get out of, will have to scramble for other, non-federal funding sources. In addition, universities will incur extra security expenses, most likely without receiving any extra federal funding. As things stand, universities are decrying the fact that Canada’s R&D spending is among the lowest of major Western economies and are pushing the Trudeau government to raise funding in the next federal budget, due this spring.

Then there’s the unknown impact on collaboration with allied countries, at a time when, in each country, the security rules are rising rapidly but in different, sometimes incompatible ways. In a statement, the U15 group of Canadian universities said its members take security threats “extremely seriously”, but that “international research partnerships provide significant benefits to all Canadians and remain vital to ensuring Canada remains globally competitive.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up