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Schools question plans to limit foreign students' access
Scripps Howard News Service


May 03, 2005

Washington - Universities and scientists are protesting Bush administration moves to limit foreign students' access to research equipment that might be valuable to spies or terrorists.

Academics and scientists are scheduled to meet Friday at the National Academy of Sciences to discuss Commerce Department plans to write regulations governing use of the equipment. The rules could deny foreigners access to hardware involved in a broad array of research projects - from microbiology to computer software.

University leaders say that moves by Commerce to impose business restrictions on universities are unworkable and will discourage foreign students from studying for graduate degrees at America's leading research universities. School officials say that new background checks required of students after of 9/11 should be sufficient to determine whether students are coming to the United States to learn or spy.

Foreign-student enrollment in the United States is already off more than 28 percent since the attacks, largely because of new visa requirements. There were more than 216,000 foreign students enrolled in graduate programs at American universities in the 2003-04 school year.

The Commerce Department announced in March that it was considering regulations that would forbid foreign students from having anything to do with the "operation, installation (including on-site installation), maintenance (checking), repair, overhaul and refurbishing" of machines that business is restricted from selling overseas.

The agency noted that Inspector General Johnnie Frazier said in a 2004 report that foreign academic researchers' using equipment in U.S. laboratories, or being involved in repairing it, could be considered a violation of export controls prohibiting the transfer of sensitive technology.

Frazier suggested that universities should be required to obtain licenses for foreign use of sensitive equipment, just as business is required to get government licenses before such equipment can be shipped overseas.

Bob Hardy of the Council on Government Relations, who follows the issue for America's research universities, said there's no way universities can determine where science research projects are going, or what kind of equipment might be needed to complete some projects.

Hardy and others say that the proposed regulations are so broadly drafted that a professor giving guidance to a student on how to use equipment could be cited for transferring sensitive knowledge.

"If you take that literally, it would stop all research projects" in which foreign students are involved, Hardy said. Hardy said scientific research produces technological advances that tremendously benefits America's economy, and "this runs a risk of damaging our whole technical capabilities."

Hardy said government controls on exports are very complex. "It's daunting to think about," he said. "Quite a lot of lawyers in this town are making good livings telling their (business) clients about it."

Jamie Lewis Keith, general counsel for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said cracking down on foreign students' involvement in research "will have devastating results for universities."

The Commerce Department restricts exports involving nuclear materials, microorganisms and toxins, electronics, computers, telecommunications, lasers, navigation and avionics, marine equipment, propulsion systems and space systems.

Toby Smith, of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said the government is aware of the impact of stifling university research and is moving slowly by first soliciting views on the new regulations before imposing them.

"We've been pleased the way they've responded to this," Smith said.

Even before 9/11, the Pentagon sought tougher controls on technology transfers out of concerns China and Russia had increased spying activities and sought to obtain military and business secrets - especially those with both commercial and military applications.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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