Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow at the Institute of Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and former executive vice-president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
Canada is proud to have one of the world’s best research environments for cutting-edge development in technology and science. But recent media reports have documented the risks of a system where Canadian researchers may collaborate with China.
As the new China of President Xi Jinping has become more aggressive in acquiring technology from other countries, we have found that China’s military scientists – as well as companies implicated in the regime’s surveillance state, such as iFlytek, SenseTime, Alibaba and BGI Group – have established research relationships with Canada’s top universities and research centres.
Canadian researchers partnering with colleagues in China in areas such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, photonics, quantum computing and advanced materials may not realize that their great ideas shared with Chinese colleagues may be going out the back door into military applications. Mr. Xi’s ramped-up policy to integrate civilian and military technology development means Chinese civilian scientists cannot refuse to partner with their military counterparts.
As Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne has been saying for months, “the China of 2021 is not the China of 2016.” We are seeing efforts by this new China to acquire Canada’s most advanced technologies for its military-industrial complex and for the intensive surveillance of Chinese citizens, including the persecuted Uyghur population.
In effect, Canada’s open system of academic exchange is now being used to turn our innovations into tools of repression, and potentially to create weaponry against us and our allies.
This should be a wake-up call of the first order, but it is also a cold shower for academic institutions in Canada. Academic freedom is the very foundation of university life in Canada, and science is international by its nature. It is accepted culture that Canadian scientists can partner with whomever they wish.
At the same time, Canadian scientists should not want their advanced innovations going into Chinese military applications, even when the collaboration will advance their research objectives. They need to raise their personal awareness of how this is happening in China. There is also a public policy imperative that Canadian taxpayers’ money not be used to build China’s military and surveillance state.
Coming to terms with this new challenge means being transparent about the areas in which collaboration with China is happening, and about the funding involved. It has been concerning to see that some universities have been concealing the funding they are getting from Chinese sources, which is frequently the case when sensitive technologies are involved. But information on all such funding should be publicly available.
Responsibility in this field is shared between the federal government, which provides research funding to universities, and the provinces, which have jurisdiction over universities. Federal granting councils and departments have reviews underway, and the government of Alberta recently imposed a freeze on new or renewed university collaborations with China while the province undertakes a review. That is a good model for other provinces to follow, though it should apply not just to university-to-university collaborations.
And those were only the collaborations that led to publications. The University of Waterloo, University of Toronto and McGill University were in the top 10 universities in the world with such collaborations. ASPI’s list of 160 military-affiliated Chinese institutions is a good checklist for our universities to avoid. But Chinese students and researchers have been known to obscure their affiliation by naming a different home institute – not very transparent!
Given that some Chinese funding to universities has been concealed, government measures to address the issue must go beyond conditions tied to provincial and federal grants, to include any research that involves Chinese companies, research institutions, donors or initiatives.
One such example is China’s Thousand Talents Plan, designed to attract top researchers from abroad, which in some cases pays a full Chinese salary on top of a professor’s Canadian salary, plus funding for their Canadian lab and sometimes funding to the Canadian university for overhead.
To be clear, much collaboration with China is welcome, including in areas such as environmental science, big science and most medical research. But Canadian researchers should always proceed cautiously. The transfer of personal genomic data of Canadians to China, as reported recently, is of particular concern. And adding human genes to monkey embryos, as Chinese researchers have done, would not happen here either.
Ethical lenses need to be applied, and key strategic, emerging and enabling technologies should be identified by the reviews underway, with measures taken to prevent any contribution to China’s military and surveillance state.