Foreign students could be barred from some science research

by Elizabeth Dunbar

International students wanting to study science or engineering face tough scrutiny to get into the United States and could be barred from researching certain areas when they arrive.

President George W. Bush’s administration hasn’t made clear which particular fields it considers sensitive, but a directive signed by Bush last year warned of areas that have direct application to developing and using weapons of mass destruction.

The new designation of “sensitive” science has some University professors and students concerned because of its ambiguity, but so far it hasn’t affected University research beyond tougher student visa scrutiny.

“This whole concept of sensitive science is really troubling,” said Victor Bloomfield, dean of the University’s Graduate School. “It’s not classified, but it’s ill-defined, and no one in government is particularly anxious to define it.”

Kenneth Heller, a University physics professor, said “sensitive” depends on how people use knowledge – not the knowledge itself.

“All knowledge is sensitive,” he said. “You can build things if you know things.”

The designation of sensitive material mostly concerns research contracts between the University and the federal government.

Some of these contract clauses require prior approval of the people working on the project, allowing the government to control international-student involvement.

An official from the University Office of the General Counsel said the University has encountered similar situations in negotiating contracts with the federal government.

David Hamilton, interim vice president for research, said the University would not agree to a research contract that prevents certain individuals’ participation.

“We would argue strenuously against it, because it’s against the general precepts of scientific advancement,” he said.

The University does not allow classified research but does have unclassified research that could be considered sensitive, Hamilton said.

Ed Wink, associate vice president for the University Sponsored Projects Administration, said contracts with any U.S. defense agencies won’t prevent international student involvement.

“We negotiate them so that anyone can participate on them,” Wink said.

Even if certain students were barred from working on sensitive projects, some think the nature of openness at universities would not prevent sensitive material from getting into the wrong hands.

“In the academic community, everything is published,” electrical engineering professor Mostafa Kaveh said. “We believe that’s the best environment we can work in.”

When it comes to thinking about how students will use their knowledge, Heller said he’s concerned about all of his students – not just international students.

“People build things and do things I don’t approve of,” he said. “You think about it sometimes, but not to the point that it paralyzes you.”

Kaveh, who came to the University in 1975 from Iran, said he doesn’t question his students’ intentions.

“I don’t look at a student as anybody other than someone interested in education and research,” he said.

Abhijit Dande, an Indian research assistant working on a project for the U.S. Navy, said he is concerned about the U.S. government abusing the sensitive science designation.

“Maybe it is reasonable to some extent, but it shouldn’t be misused to other areas that are not so sensitive,” Dande said.

“I think the government probably shouldn’t restrict (sensitive science),” said Rayven Chinniah, an engineering graduate student from Malaysia. “You get a bigger talent pool if you don’t have restrictions.”

Hamilton said he thinks universities will face more pressure from the federal government, especially under the current administration’s emphasis on combating terrorism inside the United States.

“This issue is going to be coming up against us more,” he said. “It’s going to get more difficult because of the imprecision of what sensitive is.”

Kaveh said without international students, some research wouldn’t exist.

“It wouldn’t be there,” he said. “We don’t have enough domestic students interested in these areas.”

According to data generated by the University’s Graduate School, 41 percent of graduate students studying biological and physical sciences, including engineering, are from foreign countries.

In addition, less than 1 percent of all graduate students in those areas are from countries Bush has labeled as sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Bloomfield said new restrictions would not only have negative effects on the University but also could cause problems for U.S. relations with other countries.

“The more international education we get involved in,” he said, “the more friends we make for the U.S. around the world.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]