Leading Canadian universities say they intend to continue research and development with Huawei Technologies Co. – which reaps intellectual property from the partnerships – after Ottawa’s decision to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant from 5G wireless networks over national-security concerns.
When the Trudeau government announced on May 19 that it would bar Huawei from selling 5G equipment to Canadian telecommunications companies, it did not take action against Huawei’s extensive dealings with Canadian universities. Huawei spends roughly $25-million annually on university R&D projects aimed at the development of advanced communications technologies including 5G and 6G wireless.
The company participates in research programs, often as a sponsor, at about 20 Canadian postsecondary institutions including the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, Carleton University, University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo.
Universities contacted by The Globe and Mail say they have no plans to sever ties to Huawei unless instructed to do so by the federal government.
Why is Canada banning Huawei from participating in the country’s 5G network?
Cynthia Lee, a spokesperson for McGill, said the university has a limited number of research partnerships with Huawei and has no plans to alter course unless ordered by Ottawa.
“As with all Canadian universities, McGill complies with federal guidelines and regulations on research partnerships,” she said. “At this time, no decision has been made on these current research initiatives.”
J.P. Heale, managing director with UBC’s industry relations office, said the university is “not aware of any federal conditions relating to Huawei at this time and we will not speculate on any future scenario involving Huawei or any other research partner.”
UBC said it received $6.3-million in sponsored research from Huawei this year and participated in 24 research projects with the company in 2021.
The University of Toronto said in a statement that Huawei’s 5G ban is not directed at university research but added: “In the event there are changes to the government guidance, we would of course respond and comply.”
Sean Myers from the University of Calgary said “security threats must be taken seriously” and the institution is working with federal security agencies to “help us in making our risk assessments.”
Huawei estimated that about 10 per cent of the company’s annual R&D investment in Canada went directly to research partnerships with Canadian research institutions. Aside from its co-operation with Canadian universities, Huawei also has eight private research facilities in Canada including in Waterloo, Markham, Kanata, Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston, Edmonton and Vancouver.
“It is astonishing that Canada’s public universities continue to work with an organization that the Canadian government has banned from Canada’s 5G network for national-security reasons,” said Jim Hinton, a patent lawyer. “It is like throwing someone out of your house while also letting them have front-door access to your office. It makes no sense.”
Huawei won’t say how much intellectual property it has reaped from Canadian universities. “The company does not disclose commercially sensitive and confidential business information,” Alykhan Velshi, vice-president of corporate affairs for the Americas at Huawei, said in a statement.
A search of U.S and global patent offices by Mr. Hinton identified nearly 80 unique patents and patent applications invented by Canadian university researchers in recent years where Huawei is listed as an owner of the patent. In a number of cases, Canadian universities are listed as co-owners of these patents but Mr. Hinton said any revenue or benefit that Huawei derives from commercializing the intellectual property would not necessarily flow to the university.
A senior federal official said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet was concerned that the Shenzhen-based company would take the Canadian government to court if Ottawa shut down its private research facilities in Canada and banned the company from university research and development. The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak on the record about Huawei activities in Canada,
The source said cabinet was also worried that such a move could anger China even more as Ottawa is attempting to repair relations with Beijing. Bilateral relations went into a deep freeze in late 2018 after senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request and, in apparent retaliation, China jailed Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
The Liberal government was further concerned that a greater ban on Huawei might hurt it politically and that Chinese-Canadian immigrants from mainland China would punish the Liberals in key urban ridings in Greater Toronto and Vancouver, the source said.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told The Globe that the government was focused on Huawei’s 5G security concerns and did not wish to broaden the Canadian ban to Huawei’s extensive research operations.
“The primary purpose of the statement of intent to prohibit Huawei equipment from being on 5G, 4G and 3G, and any network going beyond, is to address the specific risk that that equipment poses to national security on the telecommunications network,” the minister said.
However, Mr. Mendicino said Ottawa is willing to talk to universities that are conducting research with Huawei to determine whether this is in the country’s best interest.
“We will work very closely with the academic sector including postsecondary institutions that may be advancing research in conjunction with Huawei,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we will continually reassess any activity advanced by this state actor and, where appropriate, take the necessary steps to mitigate any potential risk.”
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former senior official at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said Canadians should not overlook Huawei’s ties to the Chinese military.
“Our scientists and engineers must recognize that Huawei is an important partner in developing China’s military technologies, and the People’s Liberation Army is not our friend,” she said.
Ms. McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said she expects other telecommunication equipment makers that are not banned from 5G networks, such as Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, might begin to displace Huawei in funding Canadian university research.
Alex Wellstead, communications director for Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said the government has recently set out national-security guidelines for research partnerships for universities and granting agencies.
Researchers applying for grants through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council will now have to complete a comprehensive security risk assessment. Any project assessed to be “higher risk” will undergo a review by Canadian security agencies and a team of scientists. If judged to be too high a risk, the research will not receive government funding.
In 2020, CSIS warned the country’s universities and research institutions that Beijing is using academic recruitment programs such as its Thousand Talents Plan to attract scientists to China in hopes of obtaining cutting-edge science and technology for economic and military advantage.
The U.S. government is creating regulations that would limit research partnerships and other agreements universities have with China. Universities that fail to comply with those rules risk losing Defence Department funding.
In May, 2021, The Globe reported on the University of Alberta’s extensive scientific collaboration with China, which involves sharing and transferring research in strategically important areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
Soon after, the Alberta government ordered its four major universities to suspend the pursuit of new partnerships with individuals or organizations linked to the Chinese government or the Communist Party. The institutions are required to provide reports to the province outlining all relationships with China.
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