Universities seek guidance on when a research investor might pose a security threat

Joe Friesen

5 April 2021

Universities say they are looking for guidance from Canada’s security agencies on adjusting to new geopolitical threats.

In March, the federal government issued a policy statement on research security, saying that spies and other foreign actors pose a threat to Canadian research as well as to the country’s long-term prosperity.

Canada’s universities acknowledge a heightened sense of concern around security, but want to ensure they can continue to work in an open, collaborative spirit with international partners.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which represents close to 100 Canadian universities in Ottawa, said schools are looking for specific advice on how to respond to changing international alignments.

“In the last two years, there’s been a lot of shifts going on in the world. And Canada wants to be mindful of those. We want to make sure that our researchers and our research ecosystem are attuned to those shifts,” he said.

Last September the government warned that the pandemic had increased risks of espionage and other cyber attacks on Canadian universities, as well as research-based industries.

There has been a major increase in the number of attempts to breach Canadian institutions in the past year, Mr. Davidson said.

“Since the onset of COVID-19, research institutions of all kinds, not just universities, have been subject to increased cyber threats. There are a variety of state and non-state actors that are more active than they’ve ever been.”

The government has asked institutions to develop risk guidelines that include national security-threat analysis when it comes to making decisions on research funding and collaborations.

A working group comprising members of government agencies, funding councils and universities has been meeting for more than two years to work on these issues, Mr. Davidson said. The government has asked that guidelines be developed by the end of June.

The group includes representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the major research granting agencies, the group of 15 research-intensive universities, and the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security and Public Safety Canada.

“They want the working group to move beyond the first set of tools, which were providing helpful guidance and raising education and awareness, to more explicit advice to universities. And we welcome that,” Mr. Davidson said.

Dalhousie University president Deep Saini said in a recent column for a campus publication that universities have an “obligation to respond to the changing risk environment,” given the significance of the work being carried out at Canadian schools.

“The unfortunate reality in this digital era is that all universities are at increasing risk of espionage, foreign interference, and information and data breaches. The sudden move to a remote work environment necessitated by COVID-19 exacerbated these dangers,” Dr. Saini wrote.

At Dalhousie, the office of the vice-president research is leading an effort focused on security issues. Dr. Saini added that while adapting to the new environment can be onerous, it’s necessary.

“The security of Canadian research is an issue of vital importance,” he wrote.

Canadian granting agencies announced earlier this year that they had partnered with Chinese telecom giant Huawei to invest $4.8-million of public money in computer and electrical engineering research. The move drew criticism because the research may serve Chinese interests.

While the shift in global strategic thinking has focused on China’s assertiveness, other countries and considerations are in play.

Mr. Davidson said the next step in this transition is to ensure that individual researchers and their institutions have the resources to tackle these decisions and their implications.

“It’s very useful to have representatives from different government departments, from different Canadian security agencies, at the table hashing it out, because a university vice-president research or university president is not going to have those tools and resources to calibrate every decision.”

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