Roughly two-thirds of the research-grant applications sent to Canada’s national-security agencies for assessment under tightened rules to safeguard intellectual property from authoritarian governments were deemed to pose an unacceptable risk and denied funding.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) said it sought advice from federal security agencies on 48 applications for funding under the country’s research partnership framework, about 4 per cent of all applications.
Of the applications sent for review, 32 were deemed to pose an unacceptable risk or a risk that couldn’t be appropriately mediated, NSERC said. Two applicants withdrew before receiving a decision.
Only 14 proposals were approved for funding after being referred to the security agencies.
The reviews stem from guidelines introduced by the federal government in July, 2021, at a time of heightened concern around the protection of Canadian research interests. The guidelines apply to the alliance grants and alliance missions programs, which are a relatively small part of the larger NSERC portfolio. NSERC, which spends more than $1.3-billion a year, is one of the primary research granting councils in Canada.
The rules for research partnerships were created partly to respond to a changing global security environment marked by the rise of China and other increasingly assertive authoritarian regimes.
Canada’s national spy service, CSIS, has amplified its warnings to universities and private-sector research facilities in recent years about the potential risks of collaborations with foreign partners. Some of its concerns were spurred by the desire to protect research launched in the initial phase of the pandemic, others were of long-standing national-security interest such as energy storage, quantum technology, critical minerals or technology with military as well as civilian purposes.
The message from CSIS was that Canada’s traditional attitude of openness in scientific inquiry could unwittingly provide foreign governments with access to cutting-edge Canadian research.
In May of 2021, The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China, which involved sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
In 2018, a Globe investigation revealed that Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. had established a vast network of relationships with leading research-heavy universities in Canada to create a steady pipeline of intellectual property, which the company is using to underpin its market position in mobile technology.
The alliance applications that were recently turned down were connected to aerospace, energy and communications technology sectors, according to NSERC. The research partners in those cases were either Canadian or multinational organizations.
NSERC said the success rate for applicants overall remains the same as it was before the new rules were introduced.
While academics have adapted to the screening measures, they introduced a new and unfamiliar element to the grant application process.
Chad Gaffield, chief executive of the U15 group of large research universities, said the initial phase of the security review process has gone on longer than some expected. He anticipates that the process will become like research guidelines on ethics, which were once novel and have since become standard.
All of the applications that were sent for national-security review took more than 24 weeks to be evaluated, NSERC said, which is longer than permitted under NSERC’s service standards.
“We want research to be as open as possible and we want it to be as secure as necessary,” Dr. Gaffield said. “We all would like everything to move faster toward an efficient and effective process.”
The impact of the new guidelines is being monitored as a pilot project with the intention that they will be applied to other NSERC programs and other granting councils.
Since the new rules were enacted about three-quarters of all funding applications under the alliance grants and alliance missions programs have included a completed security risk-assessment form, NSERC said. Projects without an outside partner organization don’t require a security assessment.
Manal Bahubeshi, vice-president of research partnerships at NSERC, said for most applications it was sufficient to ensure that security risks were appropriately identified and mitigated. In some cases, where the risk-mitigation plan wasn’t fully developed, NSERC sought further guidance and advice from Canada’s spy service and other agencies.
“The guidelines are country and company agnostic,” Ms. Bahubeshi said. “Our interest is really in supporting an open and collaborative research environment and supporting national and international partnerships.”
She said the concerns they’ve heard have mainly been about decision delays for those projects referred for further evaluation. She said she expects those delays will be ironed out in future.
“It’s a new process,” Ms. Bahubeshi said. “We had to share information with national-security departments and agencies and we needed to develop some mechanisms to seek that kind of advice.”
NSERC said it first evaluates risk-assessment submissions using what it calls “open source information,” or information available to the public, to determine whether a referral for special scrutiny is needed.
The vast majority of applications with a completed risk assessment didn’t require a referral to security agencies, NSERC said.
“Ultimately, NSERC makes its funding decision by taking into consideration the results of the merit review and, where applicable, the national-security advice received. In all cases where a grant is awarded and where the Risk Assessment Form included a risk-mitigation plan, the applicant(s) must implement the risk-mitigation plan for the duration of the project,” the funding agency said in a statement.