Tech research requires funding — but there are often ethical concerns regarding how that funding is used, especially when it comes from corporate pockets. Last year, a U of T study found that many prominent artificial intelligence researchers fund their projects with support from large tech firms, whose products have been criticized for military and surveillance applications. 

One company that has received particular scrutiny for its research partnerships is the China-based telecommunications giant, Huawei.

Amid these concerns, The Varsity examined the scale of Huawei-funded research at U of T. The arguments made for Huawei-funded research, from both the university and a researcher, form a case study for how ethical concerns over research partnerships with the company are handled in Canada.

Security and ethical 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 corporate entities, other universities, or even other governments. The university has one such partnership with Huawei.

According to a university spokesperson, University of Toronto researchers have collected an average of $2 million per year since 2016 from Huawei through the strategic partnership. In addition to the money received directly from Huawei, U of T researchers have also received more than $400,000 from Huawei-sponsored grants through the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, and more than $1.5 million from the same source since 2014. 

In February, the federal government announced a new agreement between the NSERC and Huawei that would increase the availability of Huawei grants for Canadian researchers. Critics of the decision cited security concerns around Huawei’s involvement in Canadian research. 

A number of prominent research universities in the United States — including the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University — have 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 from Huawei, citing “public concerns.”

Since U of T signed the strategic partnership agreements, numerous corporate and ethical concerns have surrounded Huawei.

The company is facing charges in the United States for theft of intellectual property (IP), and numerous concerns have been raised by countries that share intelligence with Canada about the potential security risks of allowing Huawei to operate in their countries, citing Huawei’s close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. 

Additionally, reporting from The Globe and Mail and The New York Times suggest that Huawei has been providing technological infrastructure that underpins the sustained human rights abuses against the minoritized Uyghur people in northwestern China. Documents obtained by The Washington Post and corroborated by Huawei officials in late 2020 show that Huawei built facial recognition software to identify Uyghur people and report their movements to the authorities in 2018. 

These concerns informed many people’s criticism of the new NSERC-Huawei partnership that was announced earlier this year. 

University responds 

In an email to The Varsity, a university spokesperson wrote that corporate research partnerships “can help take discoveries to the global marketplace sooner and provide researchers and trainees with access to cutting-edge technology, resources, and data.”

“When we create IP in collaboration with industry partners, U of T always retains perpetual rights to use the technologies in our research and education programs,” the spokesperson added. The particular stipulations in the agreement that would govern Huawei’s ability to access and use the IP were not disclosed.

Finally, the spokesperson identified the Huawei partnership as being in line with present federal government guidelines. “The University of Toronto looks to the Canadian federal government for actionable direction and guidance on this matter. There has been no change in the government advice with respect to Huawei Canada. In the event there are changes to government guidance, we would of course respond and comply.”

The Varsity looked at publicly available data which shows that, in the 2019–2020 fiscal year, the Huawei-NSERC grants have gone to four different research teams in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

One of these researchers is Ted Sargent, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation (VPRI). The office of the VPRI administers U of T’s IP, and, as its head, Sargent is ultimately responsible for university-wide research strategy, research ethics, and drafting and negotiating all research agreements with corporate partners. 

Sargent simultaneously heads the eponymous Sargent Group — a group of eight U of T labs — that has received $642,100 from Huawei-NSERC grants since 2015, which is more than a third of the total Huawei-NSERC grants received by U of T researchers in that time period. 

Sargent, along with two other recipients, did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

However, The Varsity was able to speak with Gennady Pekhimenko, who heads the EcoSystem research lab at U of T and has been a recipient of Huawei funding since early in 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] kicked out of [the United States]. Obviously, they [have] way more money right now to spend on Europe and Canada,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.

Pekhimenko’s lab focuses on improving the efficiency of deep learning systems that can support a number of technologies that can be found in your phone, a university lab, or a security and surveillance system. The lab received its first Huawei-NSERC grant last year, for $93,989. Huawei’s prior funding of Pekhimenko’s research was not through the NSERC and The Varsity was not able to independently verify its total. 

Pekhimenko wasn’t concerned about IP theft from Huawei, noting that U of T’s central offices are responsible for making sure the contracts are in order. He argued that “there are a lot of other companies that can be attacked in the same manner. In terms of whether I worry about that or not, I [really don’t] because everything I do with them, I just make it all in the public domain. We publish immediately, so there’s nothing to steal.”

And while he is aware of accusations leveled against Huawei, Pekhimenko is not convinced that such concerns should affect decisions about academic research. “I buy the concern but in that spirit, you should limit pretty much anything you shouldn’t do,” he said. 

“I mean, refrigerators [and] TVs were invented for the military purpose first; a lot of major inventions were done that way. There are other harsher cases like nuclear weapons, right? All of that can be used in a good way or [a] bad way. Should we just delay science just because of that? No, we’re going to be curious; we’re going to learn things anyway.”

Is there a need for a stricter policy?

Formulating a university policy on working with Huawei is a very politically charged issue. Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science with a cross-appointment at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy’s Asian Institute, addressed some of the complicating factors in an interview with The Varsity.  

Regarding the potential risk of IP theft or other security risks, Ong expressed confidence in the government’s ability to make the correct decision. “I think the federal government has [Canadian Security Intelligence Service agents] with [the expertise] to make a proper assessment.” 

Ong was also skeptical that decision makers at U of T could reach a different conclusion, saying “I don’t think they have the level of expertise to make a proper assessment, a superior assessment, than the federal government.” 

She believes the onus should be on government agencies to weigh the factors and decide on a strategy by which the universities can abide. The federal government says it has created working groups to develop strategies that deal with security risks, but without details Ong and others are left perplexed.

Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the Munk School, authored a lengthy report on Canadian strategy regarding Huawei. In an email to The Varsity, he made clear that he doesn’t have any particular insight into U of T’s relationship with Huawei, but reiterated a conclusion from one of his reports: government policies that affect universities must be based on public flow of information. 

Parsons’ report also stressed the need for a national comprehensive set of guiding principles codified in policies. “Canada does not need a Huawei policy per se but, instead, needs a principle-driven set of integrated industrial, cybersecurity, and foreign policy strategies,” he wrote. 

“These strategies must be operationalized at the policy level so as to mitigate… the risks linked with all vendors’ 5G networking appliances, and they must broadly seek to address risks, threats, and opportunities facing Canada.”

Will any of these concerns ultimately affect the types of research being done in Canada? Recent developments indicate that they might. Earlier this week, the Office of the Innovation Minister issued new guidelines for reviewing foreign research investments, including the types of research Huawei funds. Universities are also advised to revisit their risk assessments of research projects funded by international partners.