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Looking north on King's College Road, towards University College at the University of Toronto on Dec. 14, 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is partnering with Huawei to sponsor leading-edge computer and electrical engineering research at Canadian universities, a move critics say threatens this country’s national security and economic interests.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a federal agency, is collaborating with the Canadian arm of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to fund the studies. Top universities in the United States and Britain have shunned further research money from Huawei over intellectual-property and national-security concerns.

The federally funded council is putting up $4.8-million for research partnerships that include Huawei. The technology giant would not divulge its contribution but would only say it is “greater than $4.8-million.”

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Jim Balsillie, former co-chief executive of Research In Motion and founder of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said he considers it astonishing that Ottawa would put up money to help Huawei obtain advanced technology that will serve to benefit China.

“All these areas of research are for strategic digital infrastructure that serve as the nervous system for today’s economy and security,” he said. “It boggles the mind that in 2021 we continue to use taxpayer funds to advance China’s priorities at the expense of our economy, security and Five Eyes partnership.” The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance between Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Canada is the only country in the alliance that has not banned or restricted Huawei from 5G mobile networks.

In 2018, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that Huawei had established a vast network of relationships with leading research-heavy universities in Canada to create a steady pipeline of intellectual property that the company is using to underpin its market position in mobile technology.

The NSERC research funding was recently announced by Ottawa and comes as the Prime Minister has asked his cabinet ministers to safeguard intellectual property in Canada. Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to François-Philippe Champagne when the former foreign affairs minister took over the Innovation department in a cabinet shuffle last month.

That letter instructed Mr. Champagne and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to work “in close collaboration with Canadian industry and postsecondary institutions, to safeguard Canada’s world-leading research ecosystem, as well as our intellectual property (IP) intensive business.”

Mr. Champagne’s office told The Globe that grants from NSERC are arm’s-length from the government but noted that federal agencies should be aware of national-security concerns when approving funding projects.

“Our government created a working group with universities and our national-security agencies to develop resources and tools to help Canadian researchers safeguard their work and identify potential risks,” Mr. Champagne’s press secretary, John Power, said in a statement. He added that Ottawa instructed “federal granting councils to review their security policies and processes so that Canadian researchers can appropriately protect their innovation work.”

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A spokesperson for NSERC, Valérie Levert-Gagnon, did not explain why it funded the projects but said it is working with university researchers to improve their “security awareness.”

John Townsend, chief spokesman for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said “Canada has long been targeted by sophisticated state-sponsored actors that attempt to “gain information and intelligence as well as influence in order to advance the national interests of a foreign state.”

Some of the research co-funded with Huawei include advanced projects such as chip-to-chip communications over heterogeneous fabrics, intelligence computing memory systems, brain-inspired photonic computing and privacy-preserver graphic analytics.

Jim Hinton, a leading Canadian intellectual property lawyer, said “it doesn’t make any sense at all to be supporting the IT development of a company that our allies don’t consider somebody safe to work with.”

Mr. Hinton said the research projects tap into Canadian brainpower and give Huawei’s parent company in China an inside track on getting access to next-generation technology that will serve China’s national interests.

Canada has welcomed Huawei through the front door, allowing it to tie up Canadian researchers to develop valuable patented technology while “paying a relatively insignificant amount [money] to get access to that information,” Mr. Hinton added.

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One of the research partnerships with Huawei that Canada has funded is a $1.4-million grant on “photonic computing for efficient next-generation telecommunications networks” at the University of Quebec’s National Institute of Scientific Research. Professor Roberto Morandotti, who holds the Canada Research Chair in smart photonics, is the researcher.

Prof. Morandotti defended working with Huawei. “Every grant we [get], we need to have industry support,” he said, adding that there are few companies in Canada with the “critical mass” to offer assistance in his field. He said only Cisco or Huawei are able to make the necessary contributions for important research. “There is nobody else.”

He said the alternative is not to launch these projects. “Either you get a company that supports you … or you don’t do any projects, and then you don’t develop any intellectual property and you don’t pay any student and you don’t support the Canadian economy.”

Prof. Morandotti said all the results generated by the research will be published and that Huawei has been very helpful with his work. “They gave us a lot of information to solve the problems that we have in our research.”

Canadian universities and researchers that responded to questions about the Huawei research partnerships pointed out that the Canadian government had not advised them against collaborating with the Chinese company.

“We look to the federal government for actionable direction and guidance. There has been no change in the actions of the government with respect to Huawei Canada and its operations in this country,” the University of Toronto said in a statement to The Globe. It said that it retains “perpetual rights” when intellectual property is created.

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Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among some of the top U.S. institutions that have halted accepting new research money from Huawei. Britain’s Oxford University also stopped accepting funding from Huawei in 2019.

Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs, Alykhan Velshi, declined to say how much money Huawei is contributing to the NSERC-funded research projects. However, he said the company spends about $25-million annually on university research.

“Huawei brings industry-leading research topics to the table with high academic value, which helps build Canada’s research excellence,” he said.

The intellectual property is jointly owned by Huawei and the university partners, Mr. Velshi said, and is for both to use.

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