Global Research a Team Effort

Research collaborations and partnerships between major research universities a key focus of McGill’s Global Engagement unit. Ensuring the security of McGill’s research against foreign interference is a university-wide responsibility.

Research is by nature international. Researchers around the world work simultaneously in collaboration and competition with each other – a productive tension that leads to breakthroughs and innovations. McGill has a long-held commitment to openness in academic research and international cooperation.

In 2020, McGill’s Provost, Christopher Manfredi, gave McGill’s Global Engagement unit the mandate to draft a global engagement strategy. To expand McGill’s international collaborations, Global Engagement identified priority focus themes, countries, and regions. Eighteen countries and regions were chosen, some representing more traditional partners with established systems of higher education and significant numbers of peer institutions—like the UK and France—and others representing opportunities for growth and programs that address sustainability goals, such as the Caribbean and Senegal.

Recently, Research and Innovation (RI) interviewed Brian Bauer, Director of Global Engagement, about why the work of the Global Engagement unit is committed to strengthening the internationalization of McGill’s research.


RI: McGill’s Global Engagement unit has expanded with the recent addition of two global engagement advisors with regional expertise. How will these advisors as well as the other members of the GE team continue to support McGill’s research community in collaboration with international partners?

(Brian Bauer (BB), Director of Global Engagement): To align with these new strategic priorities and support the implementation of the plan, the Global Engagement team was re-structured and now includes two Global Engagement Advisors, each with responsibility for several global regions: Asia, the Middle East, Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Our new team members are already adding strategic depth to the unit’s internationalization efforts by promoting greater collaboration with regions and countries, identifying opportunities for deeper engagement, and supporting the faculties and other internal stakeholders. As an example of how we are deep diving into our mandate by way of these new roles, in February, we organized a virtual signing ceremony to renew our MOU with the University of Glasgow. Building on the momentum of the ceremony, we organized a virtual workshop where experts in seven distinct research disciplines, such as slavery studies and animal science, met counterparts from the University of Glasgow and discussed possible future collaborations. These are the types of connections that we are promoting and creating.


RI: International partnerships within academic, industry and non-profit sectors, and government, are integral to a world-class research-intensive university like McGill. Do universities and researchers have a responsibility to recognize current potential threats to research and intellectual property?

BB: International collaboration is at the heart of global engagement. Strategic global engagement also requires us to evaluate potential risks, including risks that may emerge from foreign interference. Foreign interference is still a concept that is new to many people. Foreign interference is considered any action or activities by foreign governments (or other entities) that try to exert undue influence, or which infringe on core academic values. Cybersecurity attacks are an example of foreign interference that we often hear about.


RI: What role does the Global Engagement unit play in safeguarding McGill’s research ecosystem from efforts by foreign governments to misappropriate intellectual property and research findings?

BB: The Global Engagement unit has an important role to play in addressing research security threats, especially by supporting McGill stakeholders who are contemplating international partnerships or even those actively participating in them. But it’s important to note that we work together across many units at McGill to achieve a comprehensive approach to addressing foreign interference.

An important milestone in McGill’s efforts to address this issue was the convening of a Foreign Interference Workgroup in 2020, chaired by Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. The working group is dedicated to informing McGill’s researchers about how to protect their research, intellectual property, and knowledge development, as well as how to implement protections against foreign interference. The group has representation from RI, GE—which encompasses the Provost’s Office, Communications and External Relations, IT, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. This is an issue that concerns the university and is being tackled by multiple stakeholders.


RI: Can you tell us more about the steps the university is taking to protect the integrity of its research?

BB: A key strategy in our efforts to manage foreign interference is building awareness about potential threats across the academic community. This has already happened in several ways. For example, during the Fall 2020 semester, Prof. Crago and I spoke virtually with faculties and departments about risks inherent to their research collaborations and the possible dangers in sharing data. And there was a lot of talk amongst those researchers about “open science”, the practice of sharing data and results openly and collaboratively, and how to balance open science with legitimate security concerns. We have highlighted that, although making research data accessible can help advance scientific discoveries, sometimes those very results can be used for dual or unintended purposes and that could pose a risk to the university. “Eyes wide open” is the way that the university is approaching the protection of the integrity of its research.

Last spring, Public Safety Canada held a Safeguarding Science Against Foreign Interference Workshop for the scientific and academic communities at McGill. And of course, McGill’s IT department has been rolling out the Secure Your Journey platform that includes information specific to researchers. A lot of this information can be found on the Foreign Interference webpage hosted on the RI website.

The Global Engagement unit continues to support these strategies as we look for new ways to manage risks to research conducted by students and faculty. As part of Global Engagement’s partnership-building role, the unit has now integrated security considerations when evaluating partnerships, which includes identifying potential security risks which can range from something local, such as the potential for data theft from a lab, to something as far-reaching as geo-political tensions between Canada and the proposed partner’s country and evaluating the sensitivity of the research topics. As Director, I have built a strong working relationship with various government agencies, ensuring that we have a seat at the table and that the university receives information about national security issues in as timely a manner as possible. Global Engagement is also finalizing a draft version of Visitor Guidelines, which includes checklists and security measures which we hope will help manage any security-related concerns and potential risks when welcoming visitors to McGill’s campuses.

You could say that Global Engagement serves as the university’s unofficial gatekeepers to some extent – ensuring that McGill’s Roddick Gates are open to international collaborations but also safeguarding McGill’s reputation as a global academic and researcher leader. Above all, our mission is to ensure that researchers’ intellectual property and research findings are protected.


RI: The COVID-19 pandemic has limited international travel for research purposes and researchers working from home have adapted to continue to protect their data. As researchers start to travel again, how can they continue to safeguard their research and intellectual property?

BB: First, it’s important to understand that researchers need to protect their data both at home and when abroad. The difference is in the tools and risk mitigation strategies that are used at home as compared to abroad.

As you can imagine, knowledge mobilization is a very attractive component of international collaboration as it connects McGill researchers with colleagues globally. But when travelling for and with your research, researchers need to be aware of possible risks. Some of the more obvious ones include geographic considerations with travel to “high-risk” areas, who you meet or network with, and how you travel with your data. As an example, researchers should always use travel-specific devices or burners as a way of safekeeping their data.

There are several tools to help recognize and mitigate specific risks Canadian institutions, researchers, and academics are facing. Some of them include the Canadian Government’s Safeguarding Your Research portal, and Travel Security Guide for University Researchers and Staff developed by U15 and Universities Canada.

And as always, if members of the research and academic communities need assistance as they navigate changing geo-political realities that can, unfortunately, include heightened risk, they can contact the Global Engagement unit.


RI: Now, more than ever before, we are aware of the interconnectedness of our world. In your view, what does the future hold for international collaboration?

BB: The drive for globalization is stronger than ever! The pandemic only reinforced our views on the importance of international collaborations. Just think of research on COVID-19 and the accelerated development of vaccines as a testament to global research collaborations.

As for McGill’s efforts, after an initial dip in overseas activities in 2020 and the early part of 2021, Global Engagement has been steadfastly working with researchers across the University in pursuit of global partnerships – some virtual for the time-being – and signed 17 Memoranda of Understanding agreements last year alone. As one example, McGill signed an MOU with the Technische Universitat Munchen (TUM), a peer institution in Germany known for its excellence in research, with the expectation that the formalized partnership will not only facilitate research collaboration between the two institutions but also strengthen Canada-Germany relations.

Universities and academic and research institutions abroad are eager to continue working with McGill. International collaboration will continue to grow, despite any travel restrictions. With the availability of new technologies and a growing willingness to engage virtually, partnerships can be easily developed with less initial infrastructure and cost. Smart use of technology to support building international ties will even allow us to contribute to sustainability efforts as we reduce our physical travel footprint through increasing our virtual “travel.” There will certainly always be space for physical mobility, which is an important tool to broaden and deepen our collaborations, but we have added to our toolkit and have been able to take advantage of many new and exciting opportunities.

This year is already off to a promising start for international collaboration. We facilitated the signing of a pathway partnership agreement with the University of Edinburgh’s veterinary school which will allow McGill students enrolled in relevant FAES departments to gain entry and accelerate their studies in veterinary medicine abroad. This new international opportunity has broadened the range of collaborations we have with U of Edinburgh. As for outward bound activities, McGill just recently returned from a mission to the UAE where University delegates represented McGill on the global stage at the Expo 2020 Dubai. This was a unique opportunity where McGill, as part of Canada’s participation at the global fair, was able to showcase its international reach and global connections. Going forward, the Global Engagement unit will continue to support individual researchers, departments, and faculties in building networks, sharing expertise, and establishing strong ties to continue to meet global challenges.

If the future is limitless, so is the possibility of international collaborations.

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