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U of Alberta maintains research ties with China despite warnings from intelligence agencies

By David Schwartz
Published: May 11th, 2021

The Globe and Mail reports that The University of Alberta is engaged in extensive research collaborations with Chinese entities that involve sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas including nanotechnology, biotech and AI. The report also notes that some researchers at the university have set up joint ventures with Chinese companies and state institutions to commercialize Canadian-developed technology.

These activities are continuing despite warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and U.S. intelligence agencies that Chinese companies and academics are being compelled to share work they have carried out with Western researchers with China’s military, security and industrial apparatus.

The University of Alberta would not comment on the report except to state that “we have received no directives related to China” from the Canadian government to stop its engagements with Chinese institutions.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior official with Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said U Alberta has been the most active partner with China among the country’s universities. “They’ve been the lead in Canada on partnering with China — there’s no question about it,” said McCuaig-Johnston.

“All of these professors feel they are doing the right thing by engaging with China and helping China build their capacity, but they have to look very carefully at each deal to see ‘are we being taken to the cleaners’ and what is the longer-term plan for the technology,” she cautioned.

In March, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced Ottawa would be asking universities to develop new risk guidelines to integrate national security considerations into the evaluation and funding of research projects, but announcement did not include a ban on those projects

Dr. Shrawan Kumar, professor emeritus of rehabilitation medicine at the U of Alberta, said he has long been concerned about scientific co-operation with China. “China approaches individual researchers and lures them with money and travel and hospitality and all that — and they fall for it,” he said. “The Chinese policy by hook and by crook is to get the proprietary information.”

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, said universities have to rethink research arrangements with state-owned and affiliated companies based in authoritarian states, but it’s hard to put the brakes on collaborations that have historically been encouraged. “For years, we have been telling universities to go out and get this money and not really paying attention to it. And now we realize there is this huge problem and we have to slam on the brakes. But we’ve already driven off the cliff.”

Some of the linkages raising concern include a 2019 MoU between U Alberta amd HKAI lab in Hong Kong, an incubator for artificial intelligence. HKAI is funded by Alibaba and SenseTime, a Beijing-based AI company that was blacklisted by the U.S. government for its surveillance role in the repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Another entity — the Canadian Centre for BioInnovation based in Shandong, China, says its mission is to “carry out transnational technology transfer” and attract Canadian talent and projects. Its advisory board includes the University of Alberta’s associate vice-president of innovation and commercialization, Deborah James.

In addition, three U Alberta professors and a postdoc have set up a commercial spinoff, Tricca Technologies, that seeks to build and sell handheld biosensors. The university itself has an 8.74% stake in the company. In 2018 Tricca entered into a joint venture with the Yantai YEDA International Incubator for Biomedical Innovation, which corporate disclosure statements say was founded by the Chinese company Rongchang Pharmaceuticals and the local Chinese government.

Tricca chief executive Scott MacKay said the funding their Chinese partner brings will help commercialize, manufacture and market their products. Some research and development will take place in China and the Chinese partner will also bring technology to the venture. “We recognize that there are always risks when sharing R&D results and intellectual property with other companies,” he said, but the partnership is “built on trust,” MacKay stated. “We’re working with individuals in China who have long established relationships with Canada.”

McCuaig-Johnston was not so trusting in her take on the deal. “This is classic: where 60% is owned by China and 40% is owned by the Canadian company,” she said of Tricca’s joint venture. That echoes a report she authored last year for the U of Alberta’s China Institute, which found dozens of Canadian firms that were pressed into unequal partnerships and often found their Chinese partner trying to take over the joint venture.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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