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Scientists work in VIDO-InterVac's containment level 3 laboratory, where the organization is currently researching a vaccine for novel coronavirus, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in October, 2019.VIDO-InterVac/Reuters

A little more than a year ago, Canada’s spy agency went into overdrive in an effort to warn universities and researchers that they could be the targets of international espionage.

Starting in April, 2020, CSIS met with more than 230 Canadian research and industry groups and briefed more than 2,000 individuals, according to the organization’s tally.

Documents obtained under access to information show that CSIS prepared presentations for groups, including Universities Canada, the association of chief information officers of Canadian universities, biopharma labs and agencies involved in critical aspects of the supply chain, among others.

The aim was to sound an alarm about potential threats to Canadian research, from partnerships that could compromise intellectual property to the possible presence of foreign agents in labs. One of CSIS’s primary concerns is the potential theft of dual-use technology, which could have a military application in addition to its civilian uses. Sectors such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which have myriad applications, require high scrutiny.

CSIS acknowledged in its presentations that it was unusual to discuss these things outside of official channels and to do so directly, rather than via government. But it was part of a broader attempt to influence an academic mindset that in Canada has for years encouraged openness and international collaboration while, in CSIS’s view, paying scant attention to the national security implications.

As geopolitical realities change, primarily due to the rise of China as a potential adversary, universities have become a new focus for security agencies in Canada. The result could restrict the way researchers in Canada engage with colleagues, corporations and institutions around the world.

The federal government announced this month that national security risk assessments will now be required for grants funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the leading government funding agency that distributes more than $1-billion annually. Projects deemed higher risk will get additional scrutiny from national security agencies and a team of scientists, and could be turned down entirely over national security concerns. Initially, the guidelines will apply only to research partnerships with the private sector, but other federal research granting agencies are expected to follow suit.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said the risk assessments are an important step in enabling researchers to work with international partners on research that serves the national interest. As the representative for nearly 100 Canadian institutions, Mr. Davidson said the goal was to create guidelines that respect core principles of openness and free inquiry and that also contribute to a more secure research environment.

But there is a tension involved when spy agencies play a role in assessing university research.

Gilles Patry, executive director of the U15 group of major research universities, said the impact of the changes to NSERC funding will have to be closely monitored. It’s still not clear how frequently concerns will be flagged. Of the 1,000 or so partnership proposals that go to NSERC every year, he said he expects only a small number will need to be scrutinized by security agencies. In his 15 years as a senior administrator and then president at University of Ottawa until 2008, he couldn’t remember a single time he was made aware of a research security matter -- but circumstances have changed.

“We don’t know the magnitude of the issue,” Dr. Patry said.

He added that universities are ill-equipped to make national security assessments without advice from security agencies. And there’s no mechanism or system at the moment by which they could seek such guidance, Dr. Patry said, because CSIS provides advice to government, not institutions like universities.

CSIS says it doesn’t want to hamper international scientific collaboration. It wants universities, labs and individual researchers to take more responsibility for defending against security threats.

In a talk at the University of Saskatchewan last November that was posted to YouTube, Tricia Geddes, a senior official with Canada’s spy agency, spoke publicly about CSIS’s work on research security.

At the onset of the pandemic, she said, CSIS was scrambling to protect sensitive sectors as nations around the world -- some of them targeting Canadian research -- raced to understand the novel pathogen and develop a vaccine.

The spy agency began its outreach by compiling a list of the country’s most vulnerable research and life sciences institutions. The plan involved meeting with and warning as many people as possible, usually via video conference. In the most pressing and sensitive cases, intelligence officers in the field, typically based at CSIS’s regional offices, were dispatched in person for “much more discreet conversations.”

Ms. Geddes described the threat as coming primarily from countries that don’t share Canada’s democratic values. She referred to Russia and China, as well as other unnamed regimes, but added that it wasn’t only China, and that China is “not universally a bad actor.”

One of the messages CSIS emphasized was the need for increased vigilance. The agency stressed that spies today are more likely to wear lab coats than trench coats.

In a presentation entitled “academic outreach” obtained under access to information, CSIS described the threat posed by “non-traditional intelligence collectors,” people with no formal intelligence training who know a field well enough to blend in and identify useful information to target. They could be scientists, researchers, and even students.

“These individuals know what is valuable and they are able to operate in business and research environments without raising suspicions,” the CSIS presentation said.

Potential threats might not even be willing participants in espionage but could be “vulnerable to state demands” in another country, where they might be legally compelled to produce material by a foreign state security agency, CSIS said.

“You may unwittingly invite these non-traditional collectors into your front door, as you pursue business arrangements or R&D collaborations,” the presentation said. More than $1-billion a year flows to universities in research partnerships with the private sector, which marry private commercial interest and publicly supported university expertise.

Ms. Geddes, in her talk at the U of S, said it’s no exaggeration to think of artificial intelligence and quantum computing, areas of Canadian research strength, as “today’s equivalent of the most closely guarded Cold War nuclear secrets.”

Foreign interference on campuses isn’t limited to espionage. In a 2019 report to Parliament, the National Security Intelligence Committee said that some states try to influence debate at universities or disrupt events that they perceive as a problem, citing a presentation on Uyghur rights that was disrupted at McMaster University. CSIS has also said universities are sites where foreign spy agencies look for recruits.

Canadian universities have been adjusting to changing geopolitical realities over the past several years. As far back as 2016, the government began touting workshops on safeguarding science. In 2019, Universities Canada and the U15 published a guide for academics on how to travel safely, with advice on phone and computer security and how to guard against being “cultivated” by a foreign agent or trapped in a compromising situation.

In March, the ministers of Public Safety, Science and Innovation and Health asked a government and universities working group to develop risk guidelines for research partnerships. Then in May, the Alberta government told its four research universities to stop any new partnerships with people or organizations with links to the Chinese government or its ruling party.

All of this comes amid heightened tensions in the U.S. university sector. U.S. prosecutors have laid dozens of charges involving university employees and students, including an MIT professor, for not disclosing research ties to Chinese universities in grant applications, as well as Chinese visiting scholars who did not disclose their ties to the Chinese military. The U.S. Department of Justice China initiative, which targets Chinese threats to U.S. national security and prioritizes trade secret theft cases, states that 80 per cent of its economic espionage prosecutions are connected to activities that benefit Chinese state interests.

Paul Evans, a professor of international relations at UBC who specializes in Asia, said Canada’s policies are developing after a more aggressive stand toward China on the part of the U.S. and Australia. Canada has been slower down that path and has an opportunity to chart its own course, he said.

Phase one in Canada has involved what Prof. Evans describes as the vigilance agenda, essentially the well-packaged warnings from CSIS. But there will be more to come. So far the level of awareness of the subject has been fairly low, Prof. Evans added.

“I am stunned by how few Canadian professors, or in fact universities, understand the winds that are blowing on these matters,” he said.

Will universities ban collaborations with certain Chinese universities with links to the military, for example, and if so, which ones? Will restrictions apply everywhere, or only to certain fields and specific types of research? Who will decide what’s acceptable and what’s not? A large number of talented graduate students who do research work come to Canada from China. Will they be permitted to continue? Who will do the research on an individual applicant to determine who to admit and who to block?

“For universities to keep their doors to China open, they will need to close some windows and install some new screens,” Prof. Evans said.

With a report from Colin Freeze

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