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Stanford criticizes government proposal that would restrict foreign students’ research

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Stanford has joined 61 other U.S. research institutions to condemn a new law proposed by the U.S. State Department that would restrict international students’ ability to participate in research on technologies related to national security.

Currently, foreign students must apply for a license to conduct “technical” research, which is considered more sensitive than “fundamental” research. Students from countries such as China and Iran are often denied, The Guardian reported. Already, some U.S. universities steer clear of research grants that limit participation by foreign students by focusing on fundamental research that is under less scrutiny.

By expanding the definition of technical research to include any work needing pre-publication review by a private sponsor, the Obama administration’s new law would make it more difficult for foreign students to do work in areas relevant to defense such as munitions and nuclear technology.

Some believe the expanded restrictions on research are necessary to protect U.S. interests and prevent intellectual property theft by foreign countries, with one state department official calling universities “a soft target.” In April of 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a report on “Higher Education and National Security” cautioning that foreign countries may leverage “the open environment of U.S. campuses” in order to steal from “a world technology leader like the United States.”

“The U.S. government has determined some technologies should not be shared with other countries because it would remove that technological edge that serves to protect the United States … [or because] the technology would be dangerous in the hands of certain groups,” the report reads.

But Stanford and others in the 62-member Association of American Universities are pushing back against the government’s plans to tighten regulations on research, concerned that the new rules would unfairly penalize students from abroad and undermine the universities’ ability to advance science by shrinking their pool of researchers. Stanford warned of “disastrous consequences” in a recent letter to the State Department.

“We wouldn’t be able to perform the same basic foundational research that we do,” Steve Eisner, Stanford’s director of export compliance and university export control officer, told Reuters. “Stanford has a policy of conducting research openly regardless of citizenship. We’re not going to tell our Chinese students that they can’t participate.”

Chinese students could be particularly affected by the proposed new law. According to the Institute of International Education, in the 2014-2015 academic year, 31 percent of the almost one million foreign students at U.S. colleges were from China. The U.S. government is also particularly concerned about Chinese attempts to take advantage of American technology. For example, the U.S. has accused Chinese citizens of stealing military information from Boeing computers.

While the State Department acknowledged many universities’ opposition to new research restrictions, it said it did not know of opposition by companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin that often sponsor defense-related research at colleges.

 

Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles@stanford.edu.

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.