Canada to ban financing of “risky” foreign collaborations | Science

Canada’s three major national research agencies will no longer fund proposals from researchers doing “sensitive research” involving foreign collaborators deemed to pose a security risk to the country. Although the new policy, announced on February 14, does not mention China, it parallels actions taken in recent years by the United States, Australia and other countries to prevent their research investments from benefiting China’s ruling party or military.

Under the new rules, defense and intelligence officials will re-examine proposals that researchers have already flagged as potentially problematic. But some Canadian researchers fear the extra security review could eliminate cooperation with China that now benefits Canada. They also want the government to specify how it will determine which proposals pose too great a risk.

“Are we moving to a situation where the intelligence community will dictate what research is 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.”

Supporters of the expanded reviews say the new policy simply reflects the need for the government to be more careful in choosing these collaborations. “The intention is to make research as open as possible and as secure as necessary,” says Chad Gaffield, head of U15, an organization representing the 15 largest Canadian research universities that has been working with government officials since 2018 on how to improve research security. . Gaffield calls the new approach “a work in progress,” and predicts that “we’ll get to a place where (the additional screening) will become routine and not a burden on researchers.”

In July 2021, in the wake of rising political tensions with China, the Canadian government released new guidelines for research partnerships that were developed by a task force that Gaffield co-chairs. They ask grant applicants to judge whether their research “would be of interest to a foreign government … or have military applications,” as well as whether their potential partners “are associated with” entities that pose a threat to Canada. The universities are supposed to address these concerns before submitting the grant application.

The new guidelines were first applied to a small partnership program, called Alliance Grants, run by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Last month, NSERC reported that 4% of the roughly 1,000 applications it received for projects involving foreign collaborators were passed a new review by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). CSIS determined that 32 of the 48 flagged proposals should not be funded.

özsu is aware of four of the rejected proposals. They would have supported work on cloud computing, next-generation communications and data analytics carried out at a center he runs that is jointly funded by Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant. Each proposal received high marks from NSERC’s scientific reviewers, özsu says, but was rejected for unspecified safety reasons.

“The unwritten feedback to PIs (principal investigators) about their proposals was: ‘Don’t work with scientists and companies from China,'” he says. “And the attitude of intelligence agencies is condescending: ‘You don’t know what dangers lurk, and you trust us.”

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

Nevertheless, the new policy explicitly prohibits funding of any collaboration in a “sensitive research area” with anyone “affiliated with military, national defense or government security entities” seen as a threat to Canada. The broad scope could lead to regulatory overreach, worries Shawn Barber, a former Canadian diplomat who managed financial security for Public Safety Canada, one of the agencies that rolled out the new policy along with the ministries of health and innovation, science and industry. .

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

International collaborations have helped Canada grow its research enterprise beyond what the country is able to invest, Özsu says, pointing to his center as an example. “Canada punches above its weight because of our ability to work with China and other countries,” he says.

Gaffield agrees that continued cooperation with China is essential. “If you want to work with the best, it’s inevitable that there will 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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