US lawmakers seek balance in treatment of foreign scientists

After crackdowns on campus, members of Congress move to coordinate policy for universities

June 1, 2019
Source: Getty

A cross-party effort in the US Congress is urging a more measured and consistent federal approach to foreign scientists that better weighs both the threat from espionage and the danger of academic isolationism.

The group, led by Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat representative from New Jersey, has proposed legislation that would give university and science leaders a regular forum with government officials to address security-related concerns in academia.

The idea, the lawmakers said, would bring a “standardisation of federal agency approaches to academic espionage while maintaining collaboration and a welcoming environment for foreign talent” at US universities.

University leaders have grown concerned after watching a crackdown by the FBI and other federal agencies against foreign thefts of intellectual property, expanded from corporate settings and government labs into academic arenas of basic scientific research that is meant to be freely shared.

Leading recent examples include both Emory University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center firing foreign scientists. The two institutions have released few details of the cases, although both have suggested that they involve non-criminal violations such as unauthorised sharing of research data with colleagues and failing to disclose foreign sources of research funding.

US university leaders have repeatedly endorsed the idea that US national security must be protected, while warning that overly aggressive tactics in academia may grow counterproductive.

“We still believe strongly that the lines need to be clear – basic research needs to be shared for science to advance – and to not do that will be at our own peril,” said Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association of American Universities, which helped guide the work by Ms Sherrill and her colleagues.

It’s not clear, however, that either the Trump administration or Congress as a whole fully shares that sentiment, Mr Smith said.

The chief White House science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, said in a recent interview with Times Higher Education that US universities were justified in expelling foreign scientists who violated rules on sharing data. He demurred, however, on the question of whether US scientists – such as those participating in federal grant review panels who are understood to technically violate rules against sharing details of basic research work with their colleagues – should be subject to similarly harsh penalties.

“That’s an interesting question that needs to be looked at,” as unauthorised data sharing should not be allowed by anyone, regardless of nationality, Professor Droegemeier said. “Either case, they’re wrong,” he said.

Even the bipartisan six-lawmaker coalition assembled by Ms Sherrill hinted at wider divisions in Congress. She and her fellow Democrats issued statements in their bill announcement that noted the value of foreign students and scientists, while the group’s Republican members emphasised the need to prevent the theft of intellectual property.

However, some in Congress have proposed steps that many university leaders consider far more problematic. Those ideas include a bill by Jim Banks, a Republican representative from Indiana, that would assign the Department of Education – which lacks the relevant expertise – to oversee sensitive research projects on US campuses.

The Sherrill group is suggesting a single body of governmental and academic representatives, coordinated by the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Mr Smith said that such a unified body would greatly help in creating an environment for detailed policy evaluations.

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