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U.S. eyes relaxed security rules

Federal government may soften proposed restrictions on foreign-born scientists

By | December 5, 2005

Scientists are cautiously optimistic that the U.S. government will relax some proposed security restrictions that would limit foreign-born researchers' access to sensitive technology when the rules are issued next year.

"If these rules were implemented as suggested, it would have a dramatic and very harmful effect," said Tobin Smith, senior federal relations officer at the Association of American Universities (AAU). "It's antithetical to what we do at universities," he told The Scientist.

In March, 2005, the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) issued proposed regulations to restrict scientists born in India, China, Russia, and certain other countries from using sensitive laboratory equipment, or having access to information or technology with military potential without an export license. The Department of Defense followed suit in July by requiring these foreign-born nationals wear special identification badges and be restricted to "segregated work areas" at universities and companies conducting unclassified DOD-sponsored research. Currently, an exemption for basic research has allowed these scientists to have access to sensitive technology while working in U.S. academia and industry.

In response, research and advocacy groups, scientific associations, and individual universities submitted more than 450 -- largely critical -- comments to the two agencies over the proposed rules changes. Among them were the AAU, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), and the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR).

Based on discussions he's had with BIS officials, AAU's Smith said the Commerce Department plans to issue new, somewhat less-stringent rules in the next few months, eliminating about 95 percent of laboratory equipment from the export-control list. Currently listed equipment includes a wide array of lasers, centrifuges, computer software, chemicals, and viruses. Scott Kamins, a Commerce Department spokesman, would only say the rules "are still in development and are not yet finalized."

Final regulations are not expected until at least next summer because of the large number of comments received and the need to coordinate with other agencies, Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood told The Scientist.

"This segregation of students and work areas cuts against the very nature of open classrooms, libraries, and laboratories that are the hallmark of American universities," Lawrence B. Coleman, vice provost for research for University of California, wrote in response to the Pentagon's proposed rules. "Accepting these restrictions would impair the university's ability to participate in and contribute to the open academic research community."

For years, an exemption for fundamental research has allowed universities and companies to employ scientists from countries the government deems as posing national security threats without the need for export-control licenses, required for "dual-use" technologies having both civilian and potential military potential. But in March 2004, the Commerce Department's inspector general determined that the research exemption did not apply to scientists' use of export-controlled equipment. The IG also recommended revising the so-called "deemed export" rule, changing export license requirements from a scientist's country of citizenship to country of birth.

The unspoken target of the revised rules is China, Smith and others said. For years, U.S. and European media have reported cases of alleged espionage by Chinese students studying abroad. Indeed, Beijing offers "incentives for talented Chinese students and researchers studying and working overseas to return to China" and transfer the information and technology they've acquired, states the latest report by the bipartisan United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, established by Congress.

This year, more than 565,000 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education. India was the largest, with nearly 80,500 students, followed by China with more than 62,500 students. Korea and Japan followed, with 53,360 and 42,220, respectively.

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