Agency chief in hot seat after lab scientists fired has history with relations and controversies with China – .

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Agency chief in hot seat after lab scientists fired has history with relations and controversies with China – .


Iain Stewart’s career in a sense reflects Canada’s balance with a nation that is a growing hotbed of science – and a purported plunderer of the research of others.

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It’s been a tough week for Iain Stewart.

As the spokesperson for the federal government in a heated political struggle, he faces parliamentary sanction for refusing to tell MPs exactly why two scientists with ties to China were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory.

This is the first time the veteran official has faced such censorship.

But the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada has a long history of interfacing with China, both pursuing active engagement and dealing with Beijing’s sometimes controversial behavior.

His career in this sense reflects Canada’s balance with a nation that is a growing hotbed of science – and a purported plunderer of the research of others.

Stewart previously took over the National Research Council while cleaning up a major hack blamed on Beijing. In the same job, he oversaw a series of NRC collaborations with the country.

He signed an agreement on the board to work with a Chinese company on its COVID-19 shot – only to see the deal collapse when Beijing refused to distribute the vaccine in Canada in an alleged act of political retaliation.

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Joining the public health agency last September, he inherited the two-year affair of lab scientists with questionable ties to Chinese science – and became the unwitting face of a government that insists that their layoffs are a matter of human resources and confidential.

Stewart declined to comment for this story.

But the kind of scientific collaboration with China that he and his agencies have fostered has both his fans and his detractors.

Michel Juneau-Katsuya, former head of the Asia-Pacific section of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says CSIS has constantly warned of China’s vast intelligence-gathering network and the threat it poses to China. Canadian intellectual property. A report he commissioned in the mid-1990s while in the service estimated that Canada was losing more than $ 10 billion a year to economic espionage.

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But Juneau-Katsuya says governments are ignoring the intelligence agency’s warnings and being too lax in protecting Canada’s science gems.

The 2014 cyberattack on the NRC – coupled with continued cooperation with China – is a prime example, he said.

“CSIS has identified a lot of threats and knows a lot about the threats, but the government is not warning its employees,” Juneau-Katsuya said. “The only defense is prevention. When they steal your stuff, it’s too late.

Paul Dufour, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Science, Society and Policy, sees the situation differently, noting that China has been one of Canada’s top three scientific partners for several years.

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It is now a scientific superpower rivaling the United States, he said, while the large Chinese diaspora and many international students in Canada help connect the countries.

“The research community goes where the best science and the best opportunities are,” said Dufour. “I think it would be short-sighted to severely restrict research partnerships. After all, science is a global business and you never know where or when a major breakthrough or discovery may emerge. “

Iain Stewart in 2018, when he was President of the National Research Council Canada.
Iain Stewart in 2018, when he was President of the National Research Council Canada. Photo de Tony Caldwell/Postmedia/Fichier

A non-scientist, Stewart’s career as a federal public servant included stints at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and senior research and innovation positions at Industry Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat.

He became president of the NRC in 2016, two years after the cyberattack that Ottawa pinned on “very sophisticated” Chinese state-sponsored actors.

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The fallout from the hack continued while Stewart was president. An internal document reported by The Canadian Press in 2016 indicated that rebuilding the sacked system would not be completed until 2018. Another government report, obtained by The Globe and Mail, estimated the cost of repairing the breach at hundreds of dollars. millions of dollars.

But the agency continued to work with China.

NRC helped develop an Ebola vaccine in 2018 with the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Biologics.

The council and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology launched a joint call for proposals in 2019 for collaborative industrial research and development projects.

And the NRC has led a number of businesses and held annual meetings with the China National Biotec Group, which is part of the Sinopharm healthcare company.

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Much of the work to forge partnerships and help Canadian technology companies enter the Chinese market was carried out by an employee of the China Research Council who had worked at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation of China. People’s Republic, according to the agenda of an upcoming Canada-China Business Council Conference.

NRC also provided CanSino with a cell line that Council researchers developed, for use in the Chinese company’s COVID-19 vaccine. Then, in May 2020, the government announced that it had reached a deal to help test the shot and manufacture it at one of the council’s facilities.

But in August, the deal was done. Chinese customs officials had refused to allow the vaccine to be exported here, a move that many Chinese observers saw as an additional sanction for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

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Meanwhile, at the Public Health Agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory, scientists Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were removed from the facility in July 2019 as the RCMP investigated. Four months after Stewart’s arrival last fall, they were laid off.

The government declined to explain why the couple were fired, but questions have arisen about Qiu’s work in his native China. While employed by Ottawa, she was featured on two patents filed with Chinese government agencies, the National Post reported this week. The Globe reported that Qiu is working closely with Chinese military scientists.

But despite the controversy, some experts say the risks of such a collaboration have been overstated and that Canada can likely glean more scientific knowledge from China than the other way around.

“This is our future,” said James Robert Brown, professor emeritus at the Institute of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. “Good relations with China mean that our future scientists and theirs will be in constant communication, going both ways and exchanging information. The more free they are to do it, the better it is for all of us.

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