Academia becomes target for new security laws

Foreign students have helped propel the research for which US universities are famous. New security concerns could limit their ability to contribute.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When William Stwalley got word this summer about what had happened to his foreign graduate students, the usually mild-mannered physics professor could barely keep himself in his chair. He was livid.

Just over a year ago, he had traveled to Beijing to interview candidates for the University of Connecticut's graduate research program in physics this fall. But of the nine students accepted into the program, all were denied a student visa by the US State Department.

In the past, most applicants got a green light. But since Sept. 11, visa "horror stories" have popped up at universities nationwide, many say.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Such snafus may seem unremarkable in the wake of intensified concerns about foreigners entering the US under false pretenses. But they are just the most visible sign of a deeper shift taking place in higher education as the nation pushes for more safety and security in a post-9/11 world.

Academia is suddenly finding itself a central target of new security laws and regulations. To some, the greater scrutiny is natural, given that universities are home to many foreign students and much potentially sensitive research. But as fall semester gets under way, university scientists worry that freedom of inquiry, open access, and internationalization – long valued in US higher education – are at risk.

They say such security measures, though well intentioned, could undermine the free flow of intellectual exchange – both on campus and with researchers abroad – that has made US higher education a huge winner internationally. Tight security could also slow the work of labs that rely on foreign students as researchers or that have long-established ties with foreign counterparts.

"We're seeing a fundamental clash of values between university openness and national security interested in clamping down," says Eugene Skolnikoff, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's this push by government, saying, 'We've got to keep information out of the wrong hands.' Universities are essentially being asked to exclude foreign students from some projects."

One observer points to dozens of bills proposed in Congress since Sept. 11 with features that restrict higher education. The White House has its own plans, too. Key developments include:

• A category of "sensitive information" being developed mainly for nonclassified, government-owned research. Some worry it could easily be expanded to include other government-funded university research.

• The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act – passed in June – which mandates tighter scrutiny and background checks for microbiologists working with any of 36 pathogens on the US list of "select agents."

• A government panel to review visa applications of foreign students applying for advanced study in fields including lasers, high-performance metals, navigation and guidance systems, nuclear engineering, biotechnology, and missile propulsion.

Stunting basic research

About 550,000 foreign students study in the US – double the number from 15 years ago – and about half of US engineering PhDs are foreign-born. Such restrictions will sharply curb today's influx of foreign graduate students, stunting the basic research that undergirds America's technology-driven economy, some argue.

"We can't fill our own schools with people from the US," says Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "They're just not coming through the system, not willing to work that hard. Higher education has been one of our greatest exports. If we give foreign graduate students the impression they're not welcome or they are second-class citizens, then we'll repel a lot of that talent."

The new Interagency Panel for Advanced Science and Security (IPASS), which includes law-enforcement officials, will weigh applicants' countries of origin, area of study, and previous education, along with the nature of the research. When the panel is up and running, about 2,000 foreign nationals will be scrutinized each year out of roughly 500,000 applicants, officials say.

"Universities have concerns [about new security laws], but most of these haven't translated into real concerns yet," says John Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has been working with universities on limiting the impact of security regulations on higher education. "One area we are working on is the backlog on visas [for foreign students and researchers].... It has had some impact that we're concerned about."

Some in the higher-education community are relieved the focus will be on identifying individuals before they get a visa – rather than fencing off whole fields of study to foreigners.

"A lot of these policies are just getting put into place now, and it's going to take a while to assess how serious their impacts are," says Al Teich, director of science and policy programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which represents 135,000 scientists and engineers. "It's not just visas. Restrictions on publishing scientific papers – nonclassified basic research – are of great concern because then you're restricting the lifeblood of science and higher education."

Under the new laws, colleges have, so far, won exemptions from publishing restrictions for basic and applied university research. Still, Dr. Skolnikoff and others cite a threat from potential and actual new restrictions.

Some constraints aren't new

Some constraints on foreign scholars' access to basic research have been around for years. Export controls on research developed in the space sciences are one example. But in other disciplines, such as microbiology, the rules are only beginning to be felt on campus.

Students from the seven nations the US State Department lists as sponsors of terrorism will find it tougher to do university research in microbiology. There were 3,761 students last year from Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Cuba. The list could be expanded to a second tier of restricted countries, observers say.

The new Bioterrorism Act and the USA Patriot Act provide criminal penalties for anyone possessing select biological agents or delivery systems not justified by "bona fide research." And "restricted persons," including faculty, students, or staff from nations on the terror list, may not possess, transport, or even see secretarial paperwork regarding them.

But more rules are coming. Acting on a request by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, the Office of Management and Budget is drafting rules for a new sensitive-information category for government-owned research, less secret than classified information, but still restricted. Such rules could spill over to other government-funded research on campus.

"These regulations could have a chilling effect on the very research the university community is being asked to do to develop countermeasures to terrorist weapons," says Janet Shoemaker, director of public affairs for the American Society for Microbiology in Washington. "We have to have reasonable balance."

Dr. Alberts, of the National Academy of Sciences, worries about censorship and even self-censorship developing in university labs. The NAS is convening a conference on the topic this fall. Likewise, the American Association of University Professors in Washington last week created a special committee to analyze "conflicts between the imperatives of national security and the imperatives of free researching."

Some see risk, some see benefit

But where some academics see a risk of science being entangled in red tape, others see value in creating a balance between openness and rules to ensure that the wrong people don't gain access to scientific information that might be used to create terror weapons.

"We don't see research being shut down," says George Leventhal, senior federal-relations officer with the Association of American Universities. "My impression is that the [Bush] administration has made reasonable efforts when the regulations have affected the academic community."

Richard Harpel, director of federal relations for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, worries about damaging research. Still, "not all of this is bad," he says. "Many of those [restricted] select agents have been lurking in the back of refrigerators for decades. If for no other reason than housecleaning, this is worthy of our efforts."

Such housecleaning was the undoing of Tomas Foral, a University of Connecticut graduate student who, in July, became the first person charged under the Patriot Act with unlawful possession of anthrax.

Mr. Foral came across the substance, left over from 1960s experiments, while helping clean out a laboratory freezer last October. Graduate students are drilled to save specimens. In this case, however, university officials claim Foral was ordered to dispose of it but did not. FBI agents later found two vials in his section of a freezer at the Storrs campus.

The Czech-born US citizen has hired a lawyer. He is being investigated by his university and his name has been added to a watch list. "I think this is going a little bit too far," Foral told the L.A. Times. "I saved many other tissues that day. This is one of the samples that I saved. That's all that happened."

Intentional or not, his story has become a cautionary tale. "We're going to feel these restrictions more as time goes on as part of an internal self-conscious worry – and from more government oversight," says Ronald Atlas, a microbiologist and dean of the graduate school at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "The international exchange of information in the biological sciences may become more regulated. The impact could range from nil to major. I think the inability of researchers overseas to collaborate or come to the US or to publish results would be major."

The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, signed into law by President Bush in June, is so new its final regulations won't be done until December. But the act makes clear it is not just students who will be under the federal microscope: Colleges and universities as institutions will be scrutinized, too. The Department of Health and Human Services will inspect college labs to ensure compliance with select agent possession, use, transfer, and security requirements.

Universities and colleges already had to scramble to meet a Sept. 10 deadline to notify federal authorities if they had any of the 36 select agents, pathogens like ebola or anthrax. Under the new law, institutions also must limit access to researchers and students with a "legitimate need." The American Council on Education says this shift "represents a major compliance challenge."

But to the Bush administration, pressing for such changes is not unreasonable. "Everybody should be vigilant about maintaining the openness necessary for effective scientific research," Dr. Marburger says. "It can't be carried out in a closed community.... You know, I think it's a very healthy posture for the higher-education community to be alert [to security threats].... Universities have been helpful in working with my office and working on some good ideas."

To Professor Skolnikoff and others, such steps may presage curbs that could critically undermine higher education. In space sciences, for instance, it's a delicate dance to comply with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are Reagan-era export controls on technology. In March, the State Department tightened ITAR controls, further limiting a higher-education exemption that permits communicating about research with foreign colleagues if they are from NATO countries. Besides being difficult to understand, such rules leave researchers fearing fines or jail for discussions with foreign colleagues.

The result: University scientists often feel compelled to apply for export licenses when doing collaborative research with foreign graduate students and faculty. They might even drop the experiment because of the hassle.

John Mester, a senior physicist with Stanford University, is working on a satellite-based experiment overshadowed by ITAR controls. He hopes the experiment, to be launched next spring, will spot where Einstein's general theory of relatively breaks down by measuring gravity fluctuations in space. "I'm very concerned that they might restrict access to foreign nationals and to what research people can publish in open literature," he says.

He is also working on another satellite-based experiment in collaboration with European researchers. He worries it may not get NASA funding due to tighter ITAR controls.

Dr. Mester recalls, too, the example of past graduate students Haiping Jin, a South Korean, and Peter Wiktor, a German. The two worked on the gravity project a few years ago and helped produce a breakthrough in thruster research. Their research was handed over to an aerospace company, which built the research satellite with thruster technology based directly on the duo's work.

Still, neither foreign student ever got to see the actual thrusters or even their designs. Both men were nonresidents and barred under ITAR rules from seeing the technology.

Dr. Mester says excluding foreign students from seeing the fruits of their labor is unfortunate, but not critical to knowledge building, or their dissertations. "The students are really at the core of what we do here," Mester says. "If we were to restrict their access, it would have a huge impact. We couldn't even develop all the technology we've got now. We've been walking a fine line to satisfy both Stanford's openness requirement and the government restrictions."

In the end, professors and students hope the open door will prevail.

Chun Tai, a former student in UCLA's department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, graduated this spring and now works for a private company. "My view of a great America is that it should be the way it was before [9/11]," Mr. Tai says. "The top people from all over the world come here because most agree this is the best place to work together. If the government closes the door on people like me, it would be sad. They can do that, but that's not the American way."

Restrictions frustrate foreign students

Even in the go-go 1990s, bright foreigners had to work hard to get visas to become graduate students in the United States. But the bureaucratic hurdles since 9/11 are now so difficult that many will seek to attend university elsewhere, many say.

Just ask Xiaoyong Wang, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. He got into the US to study before the attacks – but now his friends, who thought they would follow, are stuck back in China.

"I know it is getting harder because this year, some of my friends got the offer from the universities, but they couldn't get a visa from the embassy," he says.

In a sign of the times, Chinese students turned down for US student visas held rare public protests twice last month at the US Embassy in Beijing. The increasing difficulty of getting US student visas is just beginning to be documented.

The Institute of International Education in New York reports that students may choose Canada, Britain, and Australia instead of the US because of these visa issues. The American Physical Society says early results of an e-mail survey of 184 physics departments indicates Chinese students are having the worst problems.

But don't tell that to Mohammed Alsaid, a Saudi Arabian student pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Southern California. Like many from the Middle East, he has a visa "horror story."

"My two friends were already students at USC for three of four years," he says. "They have apartments here, cars here, but when they went back to Saudi Arabia to renew their visas and see their families, they got stuck."

Those students have been neither approved nor denied, but just told to wait, he says. Mr. Alsaid thinks the visa slowdown will harm US higher education.

"I never thought of going to Europe when I planned to get my master's," he says. "We all believed the US has the best education in science and engineering. This [slowdown] is going to [mean that students] go elsewhere. I totally understand the US position, though. They have to be careful."

Roshanak Roshandel is an Iranian graduate student also in USC's computer-science department. Hailing from a nation on the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, she is familiar with all the background checks. It took her six weeks to pass an FBI check in 1996. She says other students she knows in Iran despair of ever getting to the US. "Almost all the Iranian students I know who came here as graduate students have had a hard time."

She has a green card that used to allow her to view restricted data as part of her research for a branch of the US government. Now an escort takes her to the data.

"It would be impossible for the [US] Department of Defense to do all the research they need without foreign students," she says. "They need us."

Self-censorship on the horizon

It was the 1940s, and Hitler's Germany was racing to build an atom bomb. Sensing the Germans were on the wrong trail, and not wanting to help, American university scientists collectively did the nearly unthinkable: They all but stopped publishing about nuclear physics.

Flash forward to this summer. Amid the new "war on terror," a university researcher discovers how to create the polio virus with mail-order materials and a genetic blueprint. Another discovers how to modify a smallpox-like virus, making it more virulent. Both publish their findings in scholarly journals.

Debate flares. Might not terrorists use such research as a cookbook to create more dangerous biological weapons, policymakers wonder?

A few microbiologists are already asking journals if they can publish their research but omit the methods that others would need to know to reproduce experiments, says Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology. That idea, he says, is a "nonstarter." It would prevent peer review and undermine science.

Still, Dr. Atlas has called for serious debate about security and self-censorship within the academy. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) plans to host a November conference to debate such issues. And the American Association of University Professors announced last week it would create a committee to review the impact of new security laws on academic freedom.

A key concern: government censorship. This summer, the Department of Defense circulated a 111-page draft directive outlining criminal sanctions for open discussions of certain types of research on campus. The draft was buried, its recommendations too controversial even within the Pentagon. It's the sort of thing that makes many shudder.

"Our nation's security depends on the balance between openness and security," says NAS president Bruce Alberts. "We have to get that balance right."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...