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Government gives foreign students OK to use sensitive technology


May 31, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The Commerce Department said Wednesday it is shelving controversial national-security proposals aimed at restricting foreign students in universities from using sensitive machinery in advanced scientific and engineering projects.

The move ends a two-year-long confrontation with scientists, who argued the government shouldn't interfere in valuable scientific research involving cutting-edge technologies.




The provosts of nine leading American research universities - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago - protested that any crackdown on foreign students would discourage enrollment, disrupt how professors teach their classes, and hamper academic freedom.

In an announcement published in the Federal Register Wednesday, Matthew Borman, deputy assistant secretary of commerce, said the agency decided the existing background checks given foreign students are sufficient to weed out inappropriate students who might seek to get into these advanced classes.

Borman said the agency is officially withdrawing a proposal that would have required universities to get licenses for foreign students to use some special equipment, and instead will convene a committee to examine how to prevent sensitive equipment from falling into the wrong hands.

According to the National Science Foundation, foreign students accounted for a third of those getting doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded by American universities in 2003.

Carnegie Mellon University President Jared L. Cohon said he was pleased the government listened to the concerns of educators before adopting a regulation that might have interfered with vital scientific research.

"Research, after all, is the driver of American industrial competitiveness, and vital to our national security," Cohon said.

The Commerce Department's move to regulate foreign students came after the agency's inspector general found foreign students in research institutions and universities were being taught sensitive advanced science and engineering procedures that could have a military application.

The IG investigation - which was part of a government-wide look at security issues after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - also found that in some classes, foreign students had access to equipment that can only be exported under special licenses to avoid the technology being transferred to unfriendly countries or put to military uses. Since the foreign students were being taught on this equipment, he said the Commerce Department should regulate their activities as a "deemed export."

The Commerce Department said that in lieu of the abandoned regulations, it is convening a committee to study ways of keeping sensitive technology from falling into the wrong hands and will emphasize the security concerns to researchers involving some scientific and engineering methods.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
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