The security crackdown by Canadian government is hampering research collaboration with China

29 Jun 2023 | News

Increased checks on international research partnerships are having a chilling effect, with researchers deterred from involving scientists in China and a change in attitude to the work of scientists of Chinese descent in Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  in discussion with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia last year. Photo: The Pursuit Room / Flickr

The Canadian government’s stepped up security for foreign research collaborations has created a climate of fear in which some scientists have stopped submitting grant applications and others have quietly severed ties with collaborators in China.

The policy, which requires Canadian researchers to include a national security risk assessment form with applications that include foreign collaborations, started small and involved only one grants agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). But in March the government expanded the guidelines to include scrutiny of the Canada Biomedical Research Fund-Biosciences Research Infrastructure Fund’s joint competition.

U15, an association of Canada’s top universities, said it expected very few applications to be rejected under the policy. So far, only 14 of the 48 proposals that NSERC referred to Canadian security agencies were approved, with the other 34 denied.

Researchers are not told why their application failed, which concerns David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). “We’ve been trying to find out if we can have an appeal process or if we can find out more information,” Robinson said. “I think there is a cloud of panic right now. We’re still waiting to see what the federal government is going to do in terms of precise regulations.”

CAUT is setting up a group to help it monitor the impact among its membership. The policies, Robinson said, reflect a broader geopolitical environment. “I’m not denying that in some specific instances there may be legitimate national security interests at stake,” he said. “But those interests should be defined narrowly and based on fact and not conjecture.”

Canada is not alone in increasing scrutiny of international research. Following the June 2022 Group of 7 meeting, member nations revised grant guidelines, planned workshops and training for scientists, and tried to coordinate national security measures that didn’t harm collaboration among their own scientists. The EU has developed its own security policy under the slogan “as open as possible and as secure as necessary.”

Japan also has been working on a system for Japanese and foreign researchers to get government approval before they are allowed to access civil-military research and technologies, according to University World News. The U.S. released its own guidance for implementing the National Security Presidential Memorandum 33 in January 2022 to protect the country against misappropriation of research and development.

Capacity building

Now, the Canadian government is taking steps to ensconce its policies into the fabric of university research. Canada’s 2022 budget includes CAD$159.6 million to build capacity within universities to identify, assess, and mitigate risks to research security and to establish a Research Security Centre at Public Safety Controls Canada, which coordinates emergency management.

The measures aim to 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, said Louis-Carl Brissette-Lesage, a spokesman for Public Safety Canada. The government’s national security threat assessment for research partnerships is agnostic, not country-specific, he said.

The centre has begun providing advice and outreach to universities and will develop research security tools, including awareness and threat briefings, to complement existing activities, said Justin Simard, spokesman for the government agency Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

Some universities already have set up new offices of research security, including the University of Victoria.

“We need to know what the role of the research and security office is,” said Xiaobei Chen, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The policy does not specify countries, but scientists of Chinese heritage have felt particularly targeted after Canada’s federal government said in February that it would ban all research with Chinese organisations that have ties to that country’s military. Simard said the policy will prohibit federal funding only to high-risk applications seeking to advance a sensitive technology research area and including researchers with ties to specific institutions of concern in China. A list of those institutions is expected, but it hasn’t been released yet.

In May, the University of Waterloo cut its ties with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms firm, saying it would end its contracts with the company by the end of this year. Charmaine Dean, vice president of research at the university, said the decision was to “safeguard scientific research at Waterloo.”

Fear and anxiety

There has been a big shift in how the work of researchers of Chinese descent is regarded, according to Chen, who said she has seen and heard examples of what appears to be racial profiling that are having a very chilling effect on, and are interfering with, researchers’ work without evidence of actual risks. One professor she talked to applied for funding that included a collaborator from Hong Kong but the research office discouraged him from including that person. He did and got the grant. Chen declined to name him to protect him.

“In many ways there is fear and anxiety about how their work will be seen,” she said. “There also is a sense of powerlessness and even betrayal because they were told to develop international collaborations since the 1990s.”

One milestone that ignited fears about Chinese researchers being a threat to national security was the US Department of Justice’s 2018 China Initiative, which Robinson and others said influenced Canada’s recent policies. The department scrapped the initiative, created under the Trump administration, in February 2022 after civil rights groups said it created a climate of fear among Asian Americans.

A similar fear is hitting Canadian researchers now, said John Price, professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria. Price published two books and many papers about Canada and China relations after conducting research in China for 15 years. “Under the current circumstances, that research would never happen,” he said. “Academic freedom is absolutely being undermined.”

Qiao Sun, head of the department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at the University of Calgary, said researchers are choosing to stop collaborations out of fear. They are finishing what is left in their contracts and saying they don’t intend to renew them. Sun has opted not to apply for grants.

Damage from the government policies affects not only researchers, but hurts university reputations as well, she said. “It takes a long time to establish relationships. In the long run research is going to suffer.”

Simard acknowledged that Canada needs open and collaborative research. “China’s sheer size and influence makes cooperation necessary to address some of the world’s existential pressures, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, and global health,” he said.

Still, Canada’s research ecosystem needs to be protected from foreign interference, said Eric Balsam, spokesman for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. China uses various means to gather intelligence, including from scientists, who have not had formal intelligence training, he said.

China’s Thousand Talents Plan seeks to exploit the collaborative, transparent, and open nature of Canada’s private sector, universities and colleges using scholarships, sponsored trips and visiting professorships, to recruit individuals to advance PRC objectives. “To be clear, the threat does not come from the Chinese people, but rather the Chinese Communist Party and security apparatus,” Balsam said.

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