Universities must work more effectively with security agencies

May 16, 2023 Universities must be deliberate about security precautions while promoting the principles of transparency, predictability, academic freedom and equity.

By Vivek Goel President and Vice-Chancellor Universities are currently in the national security spotlight, but recent coverage has forgotten the unique position that institutions are in when it comes to protecting Canada’s national interests.  

We are mandated to pursue and transmit knowledge and develop breakthroughs in strategic research areas, which strengthen the Canadian economy. Additionally, we are charged with making sure that same knowledge does not end up in the hands of foreign actors who might use it against Canadians or work against Canadian prosperity.

The world has changed. The geopolitical threat environment is now more complex and is technologically enabled.

So how do we move forward to pursue safe and productive international research relationships in the current geopolitical context?  

We develop strategies to proactively safeguard research in keeping with the National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships, established by the federal government in 2021 and evolve to ever-changing updates and directions. The guidelines provide clarity on which areas of science are considered sensitive and subject to risk.

We build internal capacity around the issue of research security by hiring personnel with experience doing the work of safeguarding science. At The University of Waterloo, in June 2022, we hired a director of research security - a first for a Canadian university. The role is designed specifically to be a liaison between our institution, our researchers and both levels of government in developing and implementing research security provisions and programs.

We engage with our researchers and staff to help them understand how their work may be vulnerable to foreign interference while also mitigating the risk inherent in some of the cutting-edge research they’re doing.  

We obtain more information about risk from national security agencies. A transparent and predictable relationship between all stakeholders is the only way to protect Canadians from foreign threats. This is precisely why Waterloo recently sent a memo to many members of our campus community to inform them of their rights when it comes to interactions with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. More information about risk and foreign state intentions needs to be conveyed to universities through a comprehensive dialogue to safeguard research in an inclusive and productive manner.  

A critical element here is to ensure we uphold our principles to diversity, inclusion and anti-racism.

We work with other universities to establish sector-wide best practices around international research collaboration that can inform this critical portfolio. Right now, Waterloo’s leaders are working with the Council of Ontario Universities, Universities Canada and the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities to develop a standard set of principles and best practices for safeguarding the scientific endeavour and our national security and prosperity.  

Moving forward, universities need to be more deliberate about security precautions and they must continue to promote the principles of transparency, predictability, academic freedom, equity and the norms of open science.  

Governments and the national security community must understand that many people on the receiving end of their attention of late feel targeted because of their race. Much more consideration for inclusivity must be infused into this conversation to ensure that all researchers can pursue scientific knowledge without fear of being targeted because of their ethnicity.

And finally, Canadian business leaders need to step up to support funding investments in these sensitive research areas to keep Canada at the leading edge of development and training.

Now is a time for Canadian businesses and governments to support critical research - as our country and economy will benefit from the breakthroughs.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Toronto Star on May 11, 2023