Alberta is urging the federal government to set strong national standards to ensure that Canadian universities and researchers are not transferring scientific data and intellectual property to China that benefits its military and security apparatus.
The call arises after the province itself has come under fire for not reining in Alberta universities engaged in research with individuals or entities tied to the Chinese government or ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Last week, however, Alberta ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of partnerships with people or organizations linked to Beijing or the CCP, citing concerns over national security and the risk that the research could be used to facilitate human-rights abuses.
Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China that involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The Globe report showed that upward of 60 professors have received grants for more than 90 projects with state and national Chinese labs.
Alberta’s May 20 order affects the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University, institutions with a strong research focus in the province. The universities have 90 days to list the details of their collaboration with Chinese entities connected to their government or the ruling CCP.
Demetrios Nicolaides, Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education, told The Globe that Ottawa needs to take a leadership role and lay down clear national rules to safeguard the types of Canadian research that should be restricted from being shared with China.
“There very much needs to be a co-ordinated federal response to this challenge. It affects not just Alberta but all Canadian institutions and all Canadian provinces and I would really like to see the federal government take a stronger stance in developing a framework that provides guidance and advice to our Canadian researchers and institutions,” he said.
In March, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced a federal working group, involving universities and granting councils, that would develop “specific risk guidelines to integrate national-security considerations into the evaluation and funding of research partnerships.” The guidelines would send a signal to Canadian university researchers, who often rely on foreign money to finance their work, but would not ban them from doing so. The working group is set to report on June 25.
Ottawa has also asked granting councils and the federally funded Canada Foundation for Innovation to review their security policies and procedures to better integrate national-security considerations into their activities.
Mr. Nicolaides said he accepts that there might be legitimate research that can be shared and developed with Chinese educational institutions to foster global science and innovation. But Ottawa needs to set down markers so Canadian scientists and universities steer clear of collaborative research that could benefit China’s military and security complex.
“That is why a framework that can provide guidance is critical and is essential to help our academics and researchers understand where there may be risk,” he said. “This is fundamentally about giving our researchers and institutions more tools to be better equipped to operate in this environment.”
In a May 20 e-mail to Alberta’s four major universities, Mr. Nicolaides requested that the boards of governors at these universities prepare reports within 90 days that detail all agreements, research relationships, institutional relationships and joint ventures under way with entities connected to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.
In addition, he asked for details on the “scope and scale” of any university ties to Chinese companies, government agencies or institutions.
“The motivation is to protect our researchers, our postsecondary institutions and our intellectual property,” Mr. Nicolaides said. “Alberta is home to some incredible ground-breaking research and new discoveries and the thought of it being used for unintended purposes I think is incredibly concerning. That was the main motivator and driver.”
John Power, press secretary to Mr. Champagne, said Ottawa welcomes “all efforts by provincial partners to increase research security, as protecting Canadian intellectual property and data is key to our long-term prosperity.”
However, University of British Columbia China expert Paul Evans expressed concern about Alberta’s order, saying it casts too wide of a net that could undermine legitimate research with China and Canadian academics.
“This a dramatic move, in fact, it is unprecedented,” he said. “They have said any connection with the Chinese government or with the Communist Party and that means literally every institution in China will fall within this [order].”
Prof. Evans said scientific research is complicated and it should be left to the federal government to define sensitive sectors in careful consultation with academic institutions.
For Alberta to “jump in like this in the absence of a sophisticated and thought-through plan of rules and guidelines … kind of looks like big interference that will undercut university independence,” he added.
Stephanie Carvin, associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said it’s important that academic freedom is respected and that legitimate research with China is not banned.
Prof. Carvin said universities should be provided with a list of Chinese labs that are known to do work on projects that involve surveillance or pose a national-security threat.
“You don’t want the government to just ham-fistedly ban things,” she said. “What we actually need is a risk-management approach to doing this kind of research and ensure academic freedom is maintained but, in a way, assuring that Canadian taxpayer research is not going to benefit the Chinese Communist Party or support unethical surveillance projects in regions such as Xinjiang.”
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has compiled a list of 160 Chinese labs and institutes associated with the Chinese military.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Ottawa should ban certain publicly funded research activities with China on national-security grounds, given warnings about the threats of this collaboration from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“Only the federal government has the capacity to respond to these national-security threats,” he said. “The Trudeau government should issue a directive to the granting councils banning partnerships with China in strategically important fields of science and technology.”
Gordon Houlden, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said it’s better for Ottawa to set national standards rather than to see a province-by-province approach to dealing with scientific research with China. Security concerns involving highly sensitive or valuable IP must be protected, but Canadian researchers need federal guidance, he said.
“Often, professors are wizards at technology and science, [but] they aren’t necessarily wizards at geopolitics, so I think guidance would be a good thing,” he said. “But we have to be open to exchanges when there is not a security or an IP risk.”
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.