Technological research requires funding, but there are often ethical concerns about how this funding is used, especially when it comes from corporate pockets. Last year, a U of T study found that many leading artificial intelligence researchers are funding their projects with the support of large tech companies, whose products have been criticized for military and surveillance applications.
A company that has is subject to special examination for its research partnerships is the China-based telecommunications giant Huawei.
In the midst of these worries, University examined the extent of research funded by Huawei at the University of Toronto. The case for Huawei-funded research, both from the university and a researcher, is a case study of how ethical concerns about research partnerships with the company are handled in Canada. .
Security and ethics concerns surround Huawei
Researchers at the University of Toronto maintain a number of strategic partnerships to share research funding, expertise and facilities. These partnerships can be formed with companies, other universities or even other governments. The university has one of those partnerships with Huawei.
According to a spokesperson for the university, researchers at the University of Toronto have raised an average of $ 2 million per year since 2016 from Huawei as part of the strategic partnership. In addition to the money received directly from Huawei, researchers at the University of Toronto also received more than $ 400,000 in Huawei-sponsored grants through the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). in fiscal year 2019-2020, and over $ 1.5 million from the same source since 2014.
In February, the federal government announced a new agreement between NSERC and Huawei that would increase the availability of Huawei grants for Canadian researchers. Critics of the decision have cited security concerns over Huawei’s involvement in Canadian research.
A number of leading research universities in the United States – including the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University – ended their research partnerships with Huawei over similar concerns and allegations of intellectual property theft from the corporate giant. The University of Oxford has also suspended funding to Huawei, citing “public concerns”.
Since the University of Toronto signed the Strategic Partnership Agreements, many corporate and ethical concerns have surrounded Huawei.
The company is facing accusations in the United States for intellectual property (IP) theft, and numerous concerns have been raised by countries sharing intelligence with Canada about the potential security risks of allowing Huawei to operate in their country, citing Huawei’s close ties with the Chinese Communist Party.
In addition, the reports of The Globe and Mail and The New York Times suggest that Huawei has provided a technological infrastructure that underlies the persistent human rights violations against the minority Uyghur people in northwest China. Documents obtained by The Washington post and corroborated by Huawei officials in late 2020 show that Huawei designed facial recognition software to identify Uyghurs and report their movements to authorities in 2018.
These concerns fueled criticism from many of the new NSERC-Huawei partnership announced earlier this year.
The university responds
In an email to University, a spokesperson for the university wrote that corporate research partnerships “can help bring discoveries to global market sooner and provide researchers and trainees with access to cutting-edge technologies, resources and data.
“When we create intellectual property in collaboration with industry partners, the U of T always retains the perpetual rights to use the technologies in our research and education programs,” added the spokesperson. Specific terms of the agreement that would govern Huawei’s ability to access and use intellectual property were not disclosed.
Finally, the spokesperson identified the Huawei partnership as being in line with current federal government guidelines. “The University of Toronto is looking to the Canadian federal government for concrete guidance and advice on this issue. There has been no change in the government’s advice regarding Huawei Canada. If government guidelines changed, we would of course respond and comply. “
University reviewed publicly available data which shows that, IIn fiscal year 2019-2020, Huawei-NSERC grants were awarded to four different research teams in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
One of these researchers is Ted Sargent, vice president of research and innovation (VPRI) at the University of Toronto. The VPRI office administers the University of Toronto’s IP and, as Head, Sargent is ultimately responsible for university-wide research strategy, research ethics and writing, and negotiating all research agreements with trading partners.
Sargent simultaneously heads the eponymous Sargent Group – a group of eight U of T laboratories – which has received $ 642,100 in Huawei-NSERC grants since 2015, which represents more than a third of the total Huawei-NSERC grants received by researchers at the University of Toronto during this period of time.
Sargent, along with two other recipients, declined to be interviewed for this story.
However, University was able to speak with Gennady Pekhimenko, who heads the EcoSystem research lab at the University of Toronto and has received funding from Huawei since the start of his career.
A researcher responds
According to Pekhimenko, this new reality is a boon for Canadian researchers. “There was definitely a boomerang effect when they [got] expelled from [the United States]. Obviously, they [have] a lot more money right now to spend on Europe and Canada, ”he said in an interview with University.
Pekhimenko’s lab is focused on improving the efficiency of deep learning systems that can support a number of technologies that can be found in your phone, college lab or security system and monitoring. The lab received its first Huawei-NSERC grant last year, for $ 93,989. Huawei’s previous funding for Pekhimenko’s research was not from NSERC and University was unable to independently verify his total.
Pekhimenko was not concerned about Huawei’s intellectual property theft, noting that the University of Toronto’s central offices are responsible for making sure contracts are in order. He argued that “there are a lot of other companies that can be attacked in the same way. As for whether I care or not, I [really don’t] because whatever I do with them, I just do it in the public domain. We post immediately, so there is nothing to steal.
And while he is aware of the charges against Huawei, Pekhimenko is not convinced that such concerns should affect decisions about academic research. “I accept the concern but with that in mind you should limit just about anything you shouldn’t do,” he said.
“I mean, refrigerators [and] Televisions were first invented for military purposes; many major inventions were made this way. There are other more severe cases like nuclear weapons, aren’t there? All of this can be put to good use or [a] wrong path. Should we be delaying science just because of this? No, we’re going to be curious; we’re going to learn things anyway.
Is a stricter policy needed?
Formulating an academic policy on working with Huawei is a very politically charged issue. Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science with a joint appointment to the Asian Institute of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, addressed some of the complicating factors in an interview with University.
Regarding the potential risk of intellectual property theft or other security risks, Ong expressed confidence in the government’s ability to make the right decision. “I think the federal government has [Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents] with [the expertise] to make an appropriate assessment.
Ong was also skeptical that decision-makers at the University of Toronto might come to a different conclusion, saying, “I don’t think they have the level of expertise to do a proper assessment, a higher assessment than that. from the federal government. ”
She believes it should be up to government agencies to weigh the factors and decide on a strategy that universities can adhere to. The federal government says it has created task forces to develop strategies that address security risks, but without details, Ong and others remain puzzled.
Christopher Parsons, researcher at Citizen Lab at Munk School, wrote a lengthy report on Canada’s strategy for Huawei. In an email to University, he clarified that he had no particular idea of the University of Toronto’s relationship with Huawei, but reiterated a conclusion from one of his reports: Government policies that affect universities must be based on the public information flow.
Parsons’ report also underscored the need for a comprehensive national set of guiding principles codified into policies. “Canada does not need a Huawei policy per se, but rather a set of integrated, principled industrial policy, cybersecurity and foreign policy strategies,” he wrote.
“These strategies must be operationalized at the policy level in order to mitigate… the risks associated with 5G networking devices from all vendors, and they must broadly seek to address the risks, threats and opportunities facing Canada.”
Will either of these concerns ultimately affect the types of research done in Canada? Recent developments indicate that they might. Earlier this week, the Office of the Minister of Innovation released new guidelines for reviewing foreign research investment, including types of Huawei research funds. Universities are also advised to review their risk assessments of research projects funded by international partners.