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The University of Waterloo is advising its researchers that they are not required to talk to CSIS agents or give them access to faculty equipment if approached by the spy agency for information on joint research projects with scientists from foreign countries such as China.

In guidelines recently sent to faculty and researchers, the University of Waterloo warned them they could be approached by CSIS agents who “may be concerned that you could be a target of a foreign state or entity, or they may have questions about some of your activities.” The memo also advises them: “You do not have a legal obligation to talk to a CSIS agent.” It later adds. “You must not consent to a search of University of Waterloo property without authorization.”

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has taken on a greater role in scrutinizing scientific and high-tech projects that receive federal money after The Globe and Mail uncovered extensive collaboration between Canadian universities and Chinese military scientists.

Nick Manning, associate vice-president of communications at the University of Waterloo, said the guidelines are meant to support faculty in safeguarding their work and coping with the stress of dealing with CSIS agents. He said in past years CSIS officers have approached researchers – sometimes at their homes. These encounters can be “a bit of a surprise and scary,” Mr. Manning said, adding some researchers felt a “real sense of fear” and “kind of an invasion of their personal space” when approached this way.

“We want our researchers to know their rights,” he said. “Our institution has an obligation to protect that information within bounds of Canadian law.”

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, former executive vice-president at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and now senior Fellow in the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said stricter national-security guidelines are necessary to protect Canadian research.

“The University of Waterloo is the number one target of China to gain access to our most advanced technology and so that puts them on the front line of helping our researchers to protect their own work and protect Canadian technology especially as it may be used by the Chinese military,” Ms. Johnston said.

Waterloo was at the top of a recent list compiled by U.S. strategic intelligence company Strider Technologies Inc. that showed researchers at 50 Canadian universities had conducted joint research projects since 2005 with China’s National University of Defence Technologies, the main research arm of the People’s Liberation Army. Some of these NUDT researchers are experts in missile performance and guidance systems, mobile robotics and automated surveillance.

From 2017 to 2022, Waterloo researchers published 46 papers in collaboration with NUDT scientists, including on photonics, a key enabling technology for many emerging national security systems. CSIS has warned that this type of joint research helps China obtain innovative science and technology for economic and military advantage.

After a Globe and Mail report Jan. 30, the federal government announced it would no longer fund research with Chinese military and state security institutions. Ottawa also announced that national-security risk assessments will be extended to researchers applying for grants from three key federal funding agencies.

The university lays out step-by-step guidelines for dealing with CSIS, and urges faculty to “try to remain calm and polite”; to request a business or contact card from each CSIS agent they are speaking with, and to “consider taking notes of the conversation.”

Waterloo also tells faculty it’s important to determine why CSIS approached them. “Do you have a high-priority research area and are they concerned you might be a target?” the guide says. “Are they concerned about some aspect of your activities?”

Also, research-grant applications are sent to Canada’s national-security agencies for assessment under tightened rules to safeguard intellectual property from authoritarian governments that are deemed to pose an unacceptable risk and denied funding.

Professor Tamer Ozsu, director of the Waterloo-Huawei Joint Innovation Lab, objected to CSIS having any say on scientific research projects with China.

“I do not think CSIS should have any impact on the research that is undertaken at the universities, including interviewing faculty members and students. These CSIS activities put in danger Canada’s STEM research sector and its role in international collaborative research enterprise,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The government first put in place national-security risks assessment guidelines in July, 2021, that applied only to NSERC.

The Globe reported earlier this year that a review by NSERC found roughly two-thirds of the research-grant applications sent to Canada’s national-security agencies for assessment were deemed to pose an unacceptable risk and denied funding.

Four of Prof. Ozsu’s projects at the Waterloo-Huawei lab were rejected, he said. The academic told The Globe that the security risk assessment rules are “onerous and contain questions [to which] ... no faculty member can reasonably respond.”

The stricter research funding guidelines have now been extended to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The Globe and Mail asked some other major Canadian universities, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McGill, Western and the University of Calgary whether they had also provided researchers with any instructions or advice in dealing with CSIS officers.

The University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto said they had not. McGill said it has not provided written instructions to researchers because it has asked CSIS not to contact professors individually but rather to seek information through administrative offices. Western said it has not provided researchers with any written instructions for dealing with inquiries from CSIS. The University of Calgary said it has not provided any direction to its faculty on engaging with CSIS officers.

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