Prism Magazine - February 2003
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An Unsettling State of Affairs

- BY CORINNA WU   

NEW SECURITY REGULATIONS INITIATED IN THE AFTERMATH OF SEPTEMBER 11 ARE CREATING HAVOC FOR ENGINEERING RESEARCHERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

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.

 

THE FINE PRINT

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 studies.

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 group.

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 national security.

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, D.C.
She can be reached at cwu@asee.org.

 

 
 
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