Industry-Sponsored Research Week

With no federal guidelines, Canadian universities grapple with Huawei funding

By David Schwartz
Published: December 2nd, 2019

Chinese telecom giant Huawei funds more than $50 million dollars in technology research in Canada, and that has some tech and national security experts alarmed. It’s also sparking a national debate over the lack of federal guidelines on reporting and tracking the use of industry-sponsored research. 

Huawei has been singled out by intelligence and security agencies around the world, believed by many to be linked to the Chinese government and is regularly accused of spying and intellectual property theft — all allegations the company denies.

According to CBC News, Huawei’s financial ties to Canadian universities total more than $56 million. Yet there are no federal rules dictating how the funds should be managed and disclosed, and that raises questions about who will own the findings of the research and the resulting patents.

“Frankly, the government of Canada has fallen down catastrophically,” says Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which studies the way information is used, and misused, across technologies. “No one knows exactly what they should be doing.”

Without guidelines, Parsons says the universities are being asked to play the roles of the intelligence and security communities, export development agencies and policy-makers.

“Things are really grey at the moment for universities,” he says. “They’ve been instructed by CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service] that there is something to be aware [of] but they don’t know exactly what.”

According to Huawei’s vice-president of corporate affairs, Alykhan Velshi, concerns about Huawei are “overblown and not really based on fact.” He said the company is committed to keeping its sponsored research public, and that agreements signed in the last year provide for the company and the university to share any patents.

Huawei has been operating for a decade in Canada, selling equipment to wireless carriers like Bell and Telus. Velshi asserts that the company works closely with those and other companies and is in weekly contact with Canada’s security agencies. The government hasn’t reported any security incidents or complaints about Huawei’s Canadian operations.

“If those counter-parties didn’t feel that we were a trustworthy actor or we were a company with whom they could do business, they wouldn’t do business with us,” Velshi comments.

But security expert  Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor from Carleton University in Ottawa, calls Huawei a “state-championed company.” 

“The Chinese state has taken two Canadians hostage on behalf of Huawei,” she charged, referring to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, whose detention in China is widely speculated to be in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. “That’s not a normal company, and I don’t think we should be considering it as such.”

Carvin says the universities are being put in an impossible situation. “There’s no good options here,” she says. “It’s either you’re denying these universities money or we’re making cheap IP for the Chinese state. Pick your poison.”

Parsons says he’s concerned that Huawei could retain control over any technological discoveries, shutting out other companies and potentially hurting Canada’s national interest, especially when it comes to 5G technology, where Canada has made major research investments. “What are the terms under which the patents are assigned?” asks Parsons. “Are they being done in a way that is coherent with the Canadian government’s foreign policy for national security objectives?”

Over the past five years Huawei has funded research at 17 Canadian universities, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to many millions of dollars. The University of Waterloo, for example, has scholarships and engineering awards funded by Huawei and has received $15.3 million in research funding over the past five years for a total of 16 projects.

The University of British Columbia has a three-year, $3-million partnership with Huawei focused on researching “advanced communications and 5G projects.”  J.P. Heale, managing director of UBC’s Industry Liason Office, said “all of our research contracts include a publication clause guaranteeing UBC the right to publish results.”

Unlike U.S. universities, the schools are under no obligation to disclose this information. “It’s not on them as the government has … failed to explain what needs to be done,” says Parsons.

Carvin is urging the government to get serious about security concerns, advocating for “an economic national security plan” laying out Canadian policy in dealing with foreign companies investing in critical research.

Source: CBC

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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