The University of Waterloo is cutting ties with Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd., saying its research partnership with the telecommunications giant is incompatible with federal security rules.
Charmaine Dean, vice-president of university research, said the government of Canada’s mandatory risk-assessment framework for university researchers, introduced two years ago to safeguard intellectual property from authoritarian governments, “led to an inability to get partnership funds through that portfolio.”
The university expects to exit existing agreements with the Chinese telecom by the end of this year.
National security agencies have flagged Huawei as a serious security risk for its extensive ties to the state. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has warned that Beijing is increasingly using joint academic research programs to obtain technology for economic and military advantage.
“With the work by the security risk assessments now identifying, I think reasonably clearly, certain companies that are at risk, there is no more opportunity at our institution to be able to continue that collaboration with that company,” Prof. Dean said Wednesday.
She added that despite this hurdle, Canada is a leader in many sensitive areas of research and that this must be accelerated, rather than slowed.
Huawei Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the risk assessment protocol, researchers applying for grants through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) have to complete a comprehensive security risk assessment. Any project assessed to be “higher risk” undergoes a national-security review by Canadian security agencies and a team of scientists. If judged to be too high a risk, the research does not receive government funding.
Reached by The Globe and Mail on Wednesday night, Tamer Ozsu, founding director of the Waterloo-Huawei Joint Innovation Lab, said the university had not consulted him on, or informed him of, the decision.
“I know, of course, that CSIS has been pushing this course of action for a number of years, but I think allowing intelligence agencies to determine or influence an academic institution’s policies is unwise and dangerous,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“Institutions can, of course, determine with whom they will collaborate and from whom they will accept donations, but these decisions should be taken with open internal consultation and follow academic decision-making processes.”
Prof. Ozsu said numerous requests to Canadian officials at various levels to clarify which topics should be off-limits in Huawei collaborations went unanswered.
“As late as this March, we were told by NSERC that there was not a blanket ban on funding Huawei collaboration projects and that Huawei was an acceptable partner, but that each project was evaluated individually,” he said. “It is very hard to reconcile multiple messages – primarily because there is no transparency and no clear policy statements at any level. So, at this point, I have no idea what makes this collaboration problematic other than the larger geopolitical environment.”
He noted that the innovation lab has funded 34 research projects involving more than 30 faculty members, and provided training and funding for 220 students and post-doctoral researchers.
The Trudeau government announced in May, 2022, that it would bar Huawei from selling 5G equipment to Canadian telecommunications companies because of potential security risks, becoming the last member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance to ban or restrict the company. However, it allowed universities to make their own decisions on research and development partnerships with the Chinese telecommunications giant.
Huawei participates in research programs, often as a sponsor, at about 20 Canadian postsecondary institutions including the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, Carleton University, University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo.
The University of Waterloo, a top research university, formally partnered with Huawei in 2016, signing an agreement that the university said would serve as a framework for existing and future investment.
The university said in a news release at that time that the collaboration would include research and development initiatives including cloud computing, next-generation communications, data management and data analytics.
The Globe and Mail reported last June that leading Canadian universities said they intended to continue their partnerships with Huawei, despite the government’s ban.
UBC said Wednesday that it had no plans to follow suit.
“Waterloo is making its own decision regarding Huawei, as they should,” spokesman Matthew Ramsey said in an e-mail. “UBC, like many other universities in Canada, is continuing to evaluate its position on the matter.”
Last year, UBC received $6.3-million in sponsored research from Huawei and participated in 24 research projects with the company in 2021.
J.P. Heale, managing director with UBC’s industry relations office, said last June that the university is “not aware of any federal conditions relating to Huawei at this time and we will not speculate on any future scenario involving Huawei or any other research partner.”