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Executive director's corner / Research community faces more restrictions on international collaboration

Executive director's corner / Research community faces more restrictions on international collaboration

By David Robinson

In December, the Federal Court released a decision that is sure to have wide-ranging repercussions throughout Canada’s academic research community.

The case dealt with an appeal by a Chinese graduate student who had been denied a visa to enter Canada after an immigration officer determined he might be pressured into spying for Beijing.

To be clear, the student was not accused of being a spy, but only that he might be recruited or coerced to become so. Normally, that would be flimsy grounds on which to deny someone a student visa, but in this case the Federal Court agreed.

Chief Justice Paul Crampton determined that the student’s research plan could reasonably expose him to so-called “non-traditional” espionage — a term referring to China’s alleged use of students to gather information about sensitive new technologies, including those that could have military purposes.

The student was planning to undertake graduate work at the University of Waterloo in the field of microfluidics with the aim of developing new biomedical applications. But the Federal Court determined, without much explanation, that the research could pose a national security risk.

In reaching its decision, the court drastically expanded the legal definition of espionage. “As hostile state actors increasingly make use of non-traditional methods to obtain sensitive information in Canada or abroad, contrary to Canada’s interests, the Court’s appreciation of what constitutes ‘espionage’ must evolve,” Chief Justice Crampton wrote.

That broadening of the understanding of espionage could affect potentially thousands of international students as it creates a far wider and more subjective basis for determining whether someone is admissible to Canada on a student visa. In the current geopolitical climate, engineering and science students from China are particularly vulnerable.

The decision came just weeks before the federal government announced its new policy on international research collaboration that, among other things, names institutions with which researchers receiving federal funding grants will no longer be able to collaborate. The list includes both state and non-state actors, with 85 from China, 12 from Iran, and six from Russia.

There may be real national security risks at stake in some academic research work. But restrictions placed on researchers should be rare, defined narrowly, and assessed based on evidence and fact, not conjecture. Otherwise, we risk shutting down vital international collaborative research projects and undermining academic freedom.

Alarmingly, I’ve already heard from Chinese-Canadian academics who feel targeted. One said they were “devastated” by both the court decision and the new rules restricting collaboration with specific institutions. “I can guarantee you that many more researchers will start to leave Canada, and even I am starting to think about this possibility,” they wrote. “Many years of hard work is now wasted, and I don’t see much future for my career."

In taking an overly broad approach to espionage and national security, we risk chasing away talent and choking off the free flow of scientific research. And that is not in Canada’s national interest. 

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