Huawei 5G ban puts UBC’s research partnerships in the spotlight

Universities may have to “show courage” if they want to continue collaborating with Chinese companies, says an expert. “They will have to tell the public why we would want to work with Huawei.”

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A ban on Huawei Technologies’ involvement in Canada’s 5G wireless network could have a ripple effect on valuable research partnerships at Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia, where Huawei has funded 24 research projects worth $6.3 million over the past year.

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The federal government on Thursday banned Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE from working on Canada’s fifth-generation wireless networks over security concerns, but refrained from restricting other corporate interests, including technology partnerships. research.

“It’s not a blanket ban,” said Paul Evans, a professor in UBC’s school of public policy and global affairs, who spoke to Postmedia as an expert on Canada-Canada relations. China, not on behalf of the university.

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While Evans believes the 5G ban is part of a broader national cybersecurity strategy, it’s unclear whether the restrictions could eventually extend to university collaboration.

“I think it will depend on the reaction of the Canadian public,” he said.

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In a statement, JP Heale, managing director of UBC’s industry liaison office, said Huawei has funded 24 of the approximately 2,600 sponsored research projects at UBC over the past year. Huawei projects represent approximately 0.8% of UBC’s total annual research funding, or approximately 3.8% of annual sponsored research.

Heale said UBC is “committed to openness and transparency in all areas, including research partnerships,” but did not elaborate on how the projects benefit the university or why academics might use them. to research. Previous UBC press releases have highlighted joint research projects on advanced communications and 5G.

Heale said all partnerships include a publication clause that gives UBC the right to publish, “meaning the research is ultimately public and available to a global audience.” UBC also has the right to license intellectual property invented during Huawei-sponsored research to other companies.

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But Evans said universities may need to “show some courage” if they are to maintain partnerships. “They will have to tell the public why we would want to work with Huawei.”

In his research, Evans said he spoke to academics at several Canadian universities where “working with China is key to being world-class in certain areas.” The goal is not to cede anything to China, but to work together so science can move forward, he said.

The federal government has already strengthened scrutiny of research partnerships with changes to NSERC’s curriculum last year, said Christopher Parsons, a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. Grant applications now require a risk assessment process that involves the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyber espionage agency.

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“That’s where I think you might start to see more movement on this issue,” he said.

A federal government press release announcing changes to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant application said that while the “vast majority” of research partnerships have “transparent intentions that provide mutual benefits to all research partners, certain activities of foreign governments, military and other actors, such as foreign interference and espionage, pose risks to Canada’s national security and the integrity of its research ecosystem.

But Evans said universities could start to forgo partnerships with some companies without government intervention.

“Universities are generally risk averse,” he said. While most major Canadian universities are still accepting Huawei funding, some smaller schools have become more hesitant. This may continue if the schools feel that the collaboration could jeopardize their relationship with US partners.

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The 5G ban announced Thursday aligns Canada with its allies in the Five Eyes intelligence network, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which have banned or restricted Huawei equipment. . Some US universities have also banned research partnerships with Huawei.

Innovation Canada said in a policy statement that carriers will be required to retire 5G equipment and managed services from Huawei and ZTE by June 28, 2024, and “any existing 4G equipment and managed services must be retired or terminated by December 31, 2027.”

In response to a question from Postmedia, Huawei Canada said it does not grant interviews and sent a statement that did not answer questions about research partnerships.

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“The banning of Huawei equipment and services will cause significant economic losses in Canada and drive up the cost of communications for Canadian consumers,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, this decision is beyond our control as a company. However, we will do everything in our power to protect the legitimate rights and interests of our customers, partners and ourselves.

— with Postmedia files

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