Canada moves to ban funding for ‘risky’ foreign collaborators | Science

Canada’s three major national research agencies will not fund proposals from scientists doing “sensitive research” involving foreign collaborators who are considered a security risk to the country. Although China is not mentioned in the new policy, announced on February 14, it parallels actions taken by the United States, Australia and other countries in recent years to prevent their research investments from benefiting a ruling party or the Chinese military.

Under the new rules, defense and intelligence officials will carry out a second check on proposals that have already been flagged by scientists as potentially problematic. But some Canadian researchers fear the additional security review could end cooperation with China that now benefits Canada. They are also asking the government to specify how it will decide on proposals that may be too risky.

“Are we moving to a situation where the intelligence community is dictating what research is going to be funded?” asks Tamer özsu, a computer scientist at the University of Waterloo. “If that happens, Canada could lose its reputation as a good partner in international cooperation.”

Proponents of the extended review say that the new policy only shows the need for the government to be more careful when choosing these collaborators. “The intention is to make research as open as possible and as secure as necessary,” says Chad Gaffield, head of U15, an organization representing Canada’s 15 largest research universities working with government officials. from 2018 on how to improve research security. . Calling the new approach “a work in progress,” Gaffield predicts “we’ll get to a place where (the additional screening) will be routine and not a burden on researchers.”

In July 2021, following heightened political tensions with China, the Canadian government issued new guidelines for research partnerships developed by a working group co-chaired by Gaffield. They ask grant applicants to consider whether their research “would be of interest to a foreign government … or has military applications” as well as whether their potential partners are “affiliated with” entities that pose a threat to Canada. Universities are supposed to address these concerns before submitting the grant application.

The new guidelines were first implemented in a small partnership program, called Alliance Grants, run by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Last month, NSERC reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reviewed 4% of the approximately 1000 applications it received for projects involving foreign collaborators. CSIS determined that 32 of the 48 flagship projects should not be funded.

özsu is aware of four of those proposals that were rejected. They supported work on cloud computing, next-generation communications, and data analytics conducted at a center he runs that is co-funded by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. Each proposal earned high marks from NSERC’s scientific reviewers, özsu says, but was rejected for unspecified security reasons.

“The unwritten feedback to PIs (principal investigators) about their recommendations was: ‘Don’t work with researchers and companies from China,'” he says. “And the attitude from intelligence agencies is a positive one: ‘You don’t know what dangers are lurking and you have to trust us.'”

Last year, the government gave $25 million to Canada’s major research universities to hire research security officers who will work with faculty to meet the new guidelines. The goal, Gaffield says, is to find ways to mitigate potential security risks so that many of the collaborations can move forward. The new rules do not name specific countries, he notes, allowing the risks and benefits of each proposed collaboration to be assessed on its own merits.

However, the new policy expressly prohibits funding for any collaboration in a “sensitive research area” with someone “associated with military, national defense or state security entities” perceived as a threat to Canada. That broad scope could lead to regulatory overreach, worries Shawn Barber, a former Canadian diplomat who managed economic security for Public Safety Canada, one of the agencies implementing the new policy. together with the Ministries of health and innovation, science and industry. .

“They have used a sledgehammer when a scalpel is what’s needed,” says Barber, noting that the policy could limit critical collaboration on public health and other areas that are not generally considered sensitive. “I wouldn’t want a Canadian health researcher to be prevented from working with someone in China to prevent the next pandemic.”

International collaborations have helped Canada expand its research enterprise beyond what the country can afford to invest, Özsu says, citing his center as an example. “Canada excels because of our ability to partner with China and other countries,” he says.

Gaffield agrees that continued cooperation with China is essential. “If you want to collaborate with the best, there will inevitably be colleagues in China that you want to work with,” he says. “So we don’t want this to have a chilling effect.”

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