US State Dept Mulls Restrictions on Foreign Student Research

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

The US State Department is considering the introduction of a controversial rule that would place a limit on the amount of university research that could be conducted by students of foreign nationality, saying that it causes a potential security threat.

Universities throughout the United States routinely perform research on sensitive topics such as defense and satellite technologies, or nuclear engineering and munitions. These schools typically receive funding from major defense companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Due to the sensitive nature of this research, the Obama administration has suggested a controversial rule putting a limit to how involved foreign students can become. The State Department suggests that these students could potentially return to their home countries and offer classified information to rival governments.

However, numerous colleges and universities are calling the rule discriminatory and saying it conflicts with academic freedom.

"We wouldn't be able to perform the same basic foundational research that we do," said Steve Eisner, Stanford University's director of export compliance. "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."

Many of these schools have signed a letter to the State Department to protest the proposal. Schools on the list include Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Association of American Universities, which represents 62 research institutions.

Colleges in the United States have become increasingly popular among foreign students who are willing to pay high fees in order to attend. However, the new rule would decrease the number of research opportunities available at colleges in the US — one of the major draws of foreign STEM students.

Aside from the push back from schools, the Chinese government has also expressed their outrage.

"China's scientific and technological developments have been achieved through the hard struggle of the Chinese people," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declared during a briefing on Thursday.

The move is the most recent in a number of attempts made by the Obama administration to protect national security through measures that have been referred to as "paranoid overreaction."

A 2011 FBI report found that foreign competitors are in fact taking advantage of how easy it is to access information on college campuses in the United States. In addition, it discovered students, researchers, and some foreign professors had been working under the instruction of foreign governments.

During the 2014-15 school year, the Institute of International Education found close to 1 million foreign students attending US Colleges, with 31% of these students originating from China. That number is a jump from the fewer than 100,000 that were attending schools in the 1960s when the US began to regulate their access to research, reports Vinay Patel for The University Herald.

Last year, the FBI investigated 53% more intellectual property cases than in 2014. The FBI claims the majority of this came from China, going on to suggest that Chinese nationals tried to export technology from the US, including military information that had been saved on Boeing computers.

While State Department officials said they were aware of the unpopularity of the proposal, they added that they have yet to receive any complaints or suggestions from companies that fund university research.

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