By John Lorinc
This spring, the University of Victoria’s newly established research security office posted a list of Chinese universities that it said faculty should avoid due to unspecified national security risks. The wrinkle, however, was the list was compiled by a dubious Australian-based “think-tank” and the Canadian government, while requiring certain research security measures, had not yet issued any guidance on institutions to avoid.
After several UVic faculty notified the university of the problem, the list was pulled from the website.
“The incident raised serious concerns about how the administration appeared to be putting greater restrictions on research collaboration than what was required,” says UVic Faculty Association president Lynne Marks. She says some members, and particularly those of Chinese descent, now feel targeted and vulnerable.
Academic researchers across the country are dealing with new government guidelines on research security. In 2021, the federal government established a security risk assessment protocol for National Research Council and NSERC applications, and similar measures for SSHRC and the CIHR are expected to be unveiled before the fall. In last year’s budget, the government provided funding for universities to establish research security offices. While China isn’t named explicitly in these efforts, there’s little doubt that China is the main target, and Chinese-Canadian academics say they are facing suspicion and discrimination.
Carleton University sociologist Xiaobei Chen, whose work focuses on children, youth and critical multicultural studies, has already felt the chill descend over her own scholarship. “I had collaboration with a few universities in China before the COVID public health emergency,” she recounts. “I was a visiting professor to these universities, where I taught, gave public lectures, and mentored junior Chinese academics. I promoted Canadian research through my collaboration with Chinese academics and institutions. I have paused collaboration with Chinese academics as a result of the chilling climate and prevailing suspicion.”
The NSERC screening requirements have also caused researchers to think twice about seeking out funding with Chinese partners. “We apply [for] NSERC funding to support our research programs,” says Lin Cai, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Victoria and president of the Canadian Association of Chinese Professors. “However, the self-risk assessment mandated by the funding agency, characterized by ambiguously formulated inquiries, holds the potential to result in accusations of ‘false statement,’ carrying lasting and undesirable ramifications.”
In addition to the new federal restrictions, some provincial governments are imposing their own rules. In 2021, the Alberta government halted all research collaborations involving Chinese research institutions with state links. In Ontario, faculty report frustrations with the provincial research fund denying grant applications involving China or Chinese academics, says Lin Cai. “These rejections stem from the fact that certain co-principal investigators had publications with co-author(s) affiliated with specific universities in China, including seven institutions associated with national defence research, in the past.”
“There’s a lot of anxiety right now,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson. “Security agents are questioning researchers. Many academics of Chinese descent are worried, and many are considering whether they should stay in the country.”
Robinson notes the Trump administration’s so-called China Initiative launched in 2018, which targeted academics suspected of sharing intellectual property with China. About 150 scientists were investigated, some secretly, and the department charged two dozen, with most prosecutions subsequently dropped. Almost nine in ten were Chinese.
In the face of mounting criticisms, the Biden administration pulled the plug on the program. “Last year, the China initiative was abandoned because it was proven to be racially profiling Chinese American academics and basically without substance,” says UVic professor emeritus John Price. A survey of 1,300 academics of Chinese descent in tenure or tenure-track positions in U.S. universities found that 65% were afraid of being investigated and a third intended to avoid applying for federal grants.
Despite the demise of the China initiative, other versions have cropped up at the state level. Ohio’s Republican-led legislature earlier this year banned all research partnerships with Chinese universities, citing national security. Some congressional legislators in Washington also want to pull the plug on the U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement, a research cooperation deal that goes back to 1979 and has produced major advances in public health.
Canada’s approach, observers say, risks repeating the same mistakes made in the US. Already, some grant applications are taking longer than normal to process. UVic’s Lin Cai said that many talented graduate students and post-docs from China no longer see Canada as a top destination because of the new research security measures. She also notes that tenure-track professors find themselves “navigating the anxiety of avoiding specific collaborations or subjects that might be interpreted as sensitive.”
Meanwhile, the university and college community is preparing for the imminent release of the latest security measures that will apply to all the granting agencies. It is anticipated that researchers conducting work in “sensitive” areas, as defined by the government, that involve partnerships with designated countries or institutions will have to have their proposals screened for security risks.
To date, even a partially completed set of security guidelines has already left its mark on the work of Canadian scholars. “Many academics are simply not applying for research collaboration funding,” says Chen. “Some removed collaborators from their funding applications when told by universities that they do not encourage having collaborators in China.”