Canada’s three major national research agencies will no longer fund proposals from scientists doing “sensitive research” that involves foreign collaborators deemed to pose a security risk to the country. Although the new policy, announced on 14 February, doesn’t mention China, it parallels actions taken in recent years by the United States, Australia, and other countries to prevent their research investments from benefiting China’s ruling party or military.

Under the new rules, defense and intelligence officers will do a second vetting of proposals that scientists have already flagged as potentially problematic. But some Canadian researchers fear the additional security review could eliminate collaborations with China that now benefit Canada. They also want the government to spell out how it will decide which proposals pose too great a risk.

“Are we moving to a situation in which the intelligence community will be dictating what research will be funded?” asks Tamer Özsu, a computer scientist at the University of Waterloo. “If that happens, Canada could lose its reputation as a good partner in international collaborations.”

Proponents of the expanded reviews say the new policy simply reflects the need for the government to be more careful in choosing those collaborations. “The intent is to make research as open as possible and as secure as necessary,” says Chad Gaffield, head of U15, an organization representing the 15 largest Canadian research universities that has been working with government officials since 2018 on how to improve research security. Calling the new approach “a work in progress,” Gaffield predicts that “we are going to get to a place where [the additional screening] will become routine and not a burden to researchers.”

In July 2021, in the wake of growing political tensions with China, the Canadian government released new guidelines for research partnerships that were developed by a working group that Gaffield co-chairs. They ask grant applicants to judge whether their research “would be of interest to a foreign government … or have military applications” as well as whether their potential partners “are affiliated with” entities that pose a threat to Canada. Universities are supposed to address those concerns before submitting the grant application.

Those guidelines were first applied to a small program that funds collaborative projects, called Alliance Grants, run by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Last month, NSERC reported that 4% of the approximately 1000 applications it received were put through a second review by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). CSIS determined 32 of the 48 flagged proposals should not be funded. The new policy extends that pilot, deemed a success, to all programs run by the three research councils.

Özsu is familiar with four of those rejected proposals. They would have supported work on cloud computing, software engineering, and data managment done at a center he runs that is jointly funded by Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant. Each proposal earned high marks from NSERC’s scientific reviewers, Özsu says, but was rejected for unspecified security reasons.

“The unwritten feedback to PIs [principal investigators] about their proposals was: ‘Don’t work with researchers and companies from China,’” he says. “And the attitude from intelligence agencies is one of condescension: ‘You guys don’t know what dangers are lurking and you need to trust us.’”

Last year, the government gave out $25 million to Canada’s major research universities to hire research security officers who will work with faculty on meeting the new guidelines. The goal, Gaffield says, is to find ways to mitigate potential security risks so many of the collaborations can go forward. The new rules don’t name particular countries, he notes, which allows the risks and benefits of each proposed collaboration to be judged on its own merits.

Even so, the new policy explicitly bans funding for any collaboration in a “sensitive research area” with someone “connected to military, national defense, or state security entities” seen as a threat to Canada. That broad scope could lead to regulatory overreach, worries Shawn Barber, a former Canadian diplomat who managed economic security for Public Safety Canada, one of the agencies that rolled out the new policy along with the ministries for health and for innovation, science, and industry.

“They’ve used a sledgehammer when a scalpel is what’s needed,” Barber says, noting the policy could rule out critical collaborations on public health and other areas generally not considered sensitive. “I wouldn’t want to see a Canadian health researcher blocked from working with someone in China on preventing the next pandemic.”

International collaborations have helped Canada grow its research enterprise beyond what the country is able to invest, Özsu says, pointing to his center as an example. “Canada punches above its weight because of our ability to partner with China and other countries,” he says.

Gaffield agrees that continued collaboration with China is essential. “If you want to collaborate with the best, it’s inevitable that there will be colleagues in China who you want to work with,” he says. “So, we don’t want this to have a chilling effect.”