NEW SECURITY REGULATIONS INITIATED IN THE AFTERMATH
OF SEPTEMBER 11 ARE CREATING HAVOC FOR ENGINEERING RESEARCHERS ACROSS
For one engineering professor at Tulane University, what
was supposed to be a two-month summer trip has unexpectedly stretched
into a semester-long sabbatical. In July 2002, Uvais Qidwai had just
finished a successful first year of teaching and traveled to his native
Pakistan to get married. There, he applied for an endorsement of his
H-1B visa and went for an interview with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. "They
wrote the remarks ‘excellent' and ‘good character' on
my application and highly recommended it," Qidwai said via e-mail.
After a security clearance, he expected to get his endorsement and
come back to New Orleans for the start of the fall semester. But months
later, he and his wife are still in Pakistan—waiting.
Reluctantly, Tulane's department of electrical
engineering and computer science canceled the class Qidwai was supposed
to teach. His research has been put on hold, and his graduate student
was left without an adviser. "The impact of this delay not only
disturbed my schedule for the whole next year but also traumatized
my students," he said.
Qidwai is one of many people in the engineering research
community who are feeling the effects of new security measures initiatied
after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The most immediate and visible
impact has been on international students and faculty, who are being
scrutinized more closely by the U.S. State Department and Immigration
and Naturalization Service than ever before. Based on a survey of 77
institutions in October, the Association of American Universities (AAU)
and the Association of International Educators reported an 8 percent
drop in the number of scholars and researchers at their schools compared
with the previous year. Many said that scientific research had been
stalled as a result.
But researchers are noticing other changes too: New
language hidden in the fine print of funding contracts designed to
protect "sensitive" information from leaving the country;
new administrative responsibilities for schools to track foreign students
and hazardous materials—both of which could, in the government's
eyes, act as agents for terrorism. Some institutions fear that these
new regulations will put a chill on engineering research, and even
threaten the open nature of their universities.
As it became known that several of the September 11
hijackers entered the country on student visas, government officials
began to worry that openness led to the problem. The State Department
began scrutinizing visa applications more closely—which translated
into long delays. The pileup affected many colleges and universities,
as shown in an online survey conducted by the Institute of International
Education (IIE) of its member institutions. Many reported longer-than-usual
waits for visas for international students, with some being put on "indefinite
hold" and a high number of outright denials. It appeared that
students from China, the Middle East, and North Africa were having
the most trouble.
Nicholas Altiero, dean of engineering at Tulane, says
the backlog has had "a gutting effect," especially at the
doctoral level. And if the delays continue, it's unlikely that
domestic students will fill the gap, since they tend to pursue master's
degrees, not Ph.D.s. "It's not helping the research infrastructure
at all," he says. "International students are a pretty
big part of our research workforce."
The numbers support his observation. According to ASEE's
annual survey, in 2001, 43 percent of master's degrees and 54
percent of doctoral degrees in engineering went to nonresident aliens,
including foreign citizens on temporary visas. And in some engineering
departments, the number of international students dwarfs that of U.S.
citizens and permanent residents. These students often form the core
of research groups, and in some cases, might be the only ones working
on a particular project.
What's more, many of these new graduates stay
in the country to work. The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Engineering
reported that 54 percent of the 1992-93 engineering doctorate recipients
who had temporary visas at the time of their degree were still in the
U.S. in 1997. "And of the ones who don't stay here," Altiero
says, "they go back to their home countries generally being pretty
good ambassadors for the U.S., understanding our culture and being
comfortable with Americans."
Still, the increased visa scrutiny might not have hurt
overall college attendance as much as some feared. The IIE survey found
no dramatic change in expected enrollments by students from major Islamic
countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan. A few institutions
reported that enrollments by students from Saudi Arabia and United
Arab Emirates had been cut in half.
But for those students who got shut out, all hope was
not lost. Altiero says his department chairs have told him that many
of the top-notch international students they admitted who couldn't
get U.S. visas found an alternative: They went to Canada.
Even those foreign graduate students and researchers
who manage to avoid visa troubles may find themselves running up against
other walls, specifically the ones put up by the International Traffic
in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. Administered by the State Department,
ITAR controls the export of technologies that can be used for military
purposes, requiring groups to have a license before a transfer can
take place. Fundamental research, however, has long been exempt—that
is, basic and applied research expected to be published and disseminated
without restriction from sponsors.
But then, in 1999, Congress transferred the regulation
of satellite technology from the Commerce Department to the State Department,
thus making a lot of basic space research subject to ITAR. University
research groups soon found themselves running afoul of the regulations.
In one case, scientists couldn't share data from a spacecraft
with their European collaborators without first obtaining a license.
Simply having a foreign national working on a certain project could
be considered "export"—a big problem, since the work
of international post-docs and graduate students is essential to many
A March 2002 amendment to ITAR reasserted the fundamental
research provision and exempted foreign nationals from NATO countries.
But it didn't solve the problem for researchers from other nations.
Also, universities have complained that the new exemption could create
the need to discriminate between different people in the same research
George Leventhal, senior federal relations officer at
the AAU, says the basic issues surrounding ITAR existed before September
11, and they haven't changed. But university researchers fear
that new policies will extend ITAR's reach into other, previously
unaffected areas. For example, some agencies, like the Department of
Defense (DoD), are considering proposals to require prior authorization
before publication of any sponsored research. Prior review would exclude
those results from the fundamental research exemption, and ITAR would
kick in. "The reason that this is a big engineering problem is
that the biggest funders of engineering research in this country are
DoD, NASA, and DOE [the Department of Energy]," says Altiero.
These agencies are concerned about the release of "sensitive" information,
so in new funding contracts, they're asking for the privilege
of reviewing research results before they get published in open literature. "We've
started to notice those clauses slipping in within the past year," says
John Gilligan, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at
North Carolina State University. The problem, he says, is that "sensitive" is
not well defined. "We take very seriously the right of our faculty
and our students to publish freely. And when that is restricted, that's
going to cause a serious problem in the long run."
Altiero says these kinds of clauses make researchers
question whether to pursue a project at all. For example, if a granting
agency reviews a set of results and determines that some are "sensitive," then
the State Department could decide that the information doesn't
fall under ITAR's fundamental research exemption. But at that
point, the results may already have been shared with, say, a foreign
graduate student—that is, "exported." Violating ITAR,
even unwittingly, can exact a $1 million fine. "It's pitted
the engineering and science schools against their own contracts and
grants departments—and legal offices who don't want to
take the risk of not following the letter of the law in some way and
ending up in prison," Altiero says.
One solution is simply not to accept those clauses.
At MIT, a panel of faculty members convened in spring 2002 to discuss
issues of openness and national security. "To date, MIT has refused,
in all cases, to accept this restriction in any of its government contracts," the
committee wrote in its report. "We applaud this approach and
believe that a ‘bright-line' policy is appropriate in this
area." But then refusing to accept such clauses might put groups
at risk of losing funding.
Another way is to set up restricted facilities for doing
classified research on campus. But that clashes with most universities' desire
to maintain an open atmosphere.
The AAU'S Leventhal sees hope in the current situation. "I
don't think there has been a chilling effect as of yet," he
says. "My sense is that the dialogue with the adminstration has
been pretty good—and that both the university sector and the
administration recognize that it is important to protect national security,
and it is important to maintain a climate where we can discover new
knowledge on university campuses."
It's this kind of balance that all parties hope
to achieve. New technologies—many first developed in university
engineering departments—have a big role to play in targeting
terrorists and protecting the populace. So a bright spot might be in
new sources of funding available for projects related to defense and
And soon, universities will be keeping track of their
foreign students and visitors through the Student Exchange and Visitor
Information System (SEVIS) being developed by the INS. The online system
should help streamline the enormous amount of paperwork that universities
process now and also make it easier to distinguish the legitimate scholars
from the terrorists.
On the State Department's side, it announced in
September that it had finally cleared away a backlog of 10,000 visa
applications, mostly from Muslim countries, that had been delayed for
months by investigations into possible terrorism connections.
But meanwhile, Uvais Qidwai has been doing his best
to telecommute from the other side of the globe. He helped his graduate
student complete her conference paper entirely through e-mail. He's
been invited to give seminars at local universities and passes the
time by visiting with his family and preparing his lectures for next
semester. Now, Qidwai's hope is that he will make it back to
New Orleans in time to deliver them in person.
Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Washington,
She can be reached at email@example.com.