Academics, State Department Battle Over Research Rights

A number of academic groups have joined with universities to fight a State Department proposal that would limit the types of research—particularly those involving defense issues—done by foreign students.

Universities and leading academic groups warn that a rule proposed by the Obama administration could harm academic freedom.

Reuters reports that the State Department rule could prevent foreign students from working on academic research or taking classes that could put trade secrets or national security at risk.

This strategy has generated opposition from the Association of American Universities, which represent more than 60 U.S. research institutions, and other academic groups, which argue that it could hinder research.

Foreign Students Already Face Limits

The outcry against the rule is being led by Stanford University, which sent a letter to the State Department warning of “disastrous consequences.”

There isn’t much information available on the proposed rule, but it would affect parts of the academic world doing technical research and work funded by businesses.

Already, foreign students face restrictions working on classified research and hit hurdles in dealing with technical and sensitive information, including anything touching upon defense technology. The proposed rule is also hard on the growing area of corporate-sponsored research involving large defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

A Potential “Soft Target”

The Obama administration is concerned about espionage by foreign countries. Tony Dearth, director of defense trade controls licensing at the State Department, noted that some officials are worried that countries like China and Iran could see universities as a “soft target” for obtaining trade secrets.

But the academic world sees such regulations as an existential threat and worries that the government’s approach could be seen as discriminatory.

“We wouldn’t be able to perform the same basic foundational research that we do,” Stanford’s director of export compliance, Steve Eisner, told the wire service. “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.”

The Stanford Daily notes that some universities already avoid sensitive research that bans foreign students from taking part. Now the concern is that the new rule could create even bigger limits on academic opportunities.

So what does the State Department think about all this? According to Reuters, department officials are aware of the concerns from the academic world but haven’t heard similar concerns from corporations.


Patrick deHahn

By Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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