Pictured above (left to right): Peter McInnis, CAUT President, Qiao Sun, Department Head of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, and Xiabei Chen, Carleton Sociology Professor.

In their current form, research security restrictions compromise national progress on equity and stifle collaboration, Chinese researchers say. 

AASUA travelled to Ottawa from Nov. 23-25 to connect with academic staff associations from across the country at the 95th Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Council. In attendance were AASUA President Gordon Swaters, Vice President Kristine Smitka, and Communications Officer Rachel Narvey. During the conference, AASUA heard a panel titled ‘The impact of Canada’s research security restrictions.’

Lin Cai, a University of Victoria engineering professor and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Steacie Fellow, raised doubts about national security guidelines NSERC launched for research partnerships in July 2021. The guidelines require applicants to self-assess the security risks of their research. 

However, the questions are subjective and hypothetical, Cai said, for example asking whether the field of research has military applications even if that is not the intended use for it. Another asks whether Intellectual Property generated could be of interest to a foreign government. 

“Why would anyone work on research that could be of no interest to foreign governments?” Cai asked. “These are questions no one can really answer.”

Cai said the new security guidelines are part of a wider pattern of discrimination against Chinese people that is present throughout Canadian history.

“Chinese people began to emigrate to Canada and Chinese Canadians were segregated socially, economically, and politically,” Cai said. “We see a vicious cycle spanning from anti-China News to anti-China sentiments and eventually Chinese exclusion laws.”

Same research, different lens

Xiabei Chen, Carleton Sociology Professor, contrasted how the work of Chinese scholars is viewed differently given the political moment.  

“When the relationship between [Canada and China] is good, what we do is called research collaboration, scholarly exchange,” Chen said. “When the relationship is not good, what we do is called espionage, theft.”

She noted restrictions on research placed in the name of national security compromise academic freedom. 

“In topics related to China, the permitted voice is pretty much from a Western-centric perspective, and the voices from China that do not confirm the centrality and supremacy of the West are often considered too offensive to be heard,” Chen said. 

Qiao Sun, Department Head of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, said the Vice-Provost Research Office requested a list of faculty members in each Schulich department who held affiliations with a Chinese University that the Office was not already aware of. 

“If that’s not racial profiling or discrimination, what would that be?” Sun asked. “That really is contradictory to what the tri-agency [NSERC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)] set out to achieve, to provide fair access to research support and to really foster a culture of inclusion.”

She cited the Alberta Government, which in 2021 sent letters to the Presidents of four Albertan universities telling them to suspend all research partnerships with links to the Chinese Government.

These measures cause an increasing number of professors to leave Canada and return to China due to the inability to maintain research momentum, Sun said, in addition to increasing stigma, social exclusion, and discrimination for those who remain. 

Ultimately, Sun said national security concerns are extremely important, but there are measures that can be taken to mitigate negative impacts on researchers and their work. 

“What’s needed is increased transparency around decision-making, and a better dialogue and collaboration between government research organizations and researchers.”