University leaders fear curbs on free flow of scholars

Rapid changes in immigration policies, including new United States government restrictions on research talent, will only hurt global science and retard its associated benefits to society, the president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Thomas Rosenbaum, told a gathering of university leaders from countries of the Pacific Rim, including the US, Canada, Latin America, China and the Asia-Pacific.

“We must argue for an open process of exchange and the ability for scholars to choose the environments where they can make their most profound contributions,” Rosenbaum said, adding: “The values and modes of inquiry of scholars cut across national boundaries. Even in times of political tension, we speak the same language.”

Referring clearly to recent policies by US President Donald Trump’s administration restricting visas for scientists from China and some other countries, Rosenbaum told the gathering of presidents of research-intensive Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) meeting in California on Tuesday, “a governmental over-reaction will hurt ourselves as much as anyone else, slowing science and its associated benefits for society”.

The APRU annual presidents’ meeting on the theme of ‘Universities in an Age of Global Migrations’, took place on 23-25 June, with some 130 delegates from the Pacific Rim.

Rosenbaum noted the US government and various research funding agencies “are going through exercises now looking at possible further restrictions on areas of inquiry as well as countries of origin in terms of students. This is a bipartisan concern [in the US]. This is not going to go away if there is a change of administration.”

“You can do a lot of harm if you overreach,” he said. “Once you start to drain universities of talent, it is very hard to reverse that.”

Shaken by sackings

Universities have been shaken by the sacking in May of Chinese neuroscientists and the closing down of a National Institutes of Health-funded laboratory at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, because of alleged failure by the scientists to disclose additional funding from a foreign source, according to regulations. In this case the foreign source was China.

Three Chinese scientists were also sacked recently by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Reports cited internal documents detailing conflicts of interest and unreported foreign income by the three.

“There are clearly examples of – by scientific standards – unethical behaviour, but I would argue that they are covered mostly by existing laws. There may not be good enforcement and universities probably take some of the blame in terms of not monitoring conflict of interest and conflict of commitment type of issues,” Rosenbaum acknowledged.

He referred to the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which controls the export of classified defence and military-related technologies. It does not apply to information in the public domain.

“But the worry from our point of view as universities is that there will be vague injunctions. We are seeing that already with sensitive, but not classified, information,” he said. “It will encourage institutions to be so conservative that you might as well make everything classified.”

Rosenbaum said his institution, Caltech, is in conversations with agencies, including NASA – it hosts the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a national laboratory – and the US Department of Energy on the relationship between universities and national laboratories.

“National laboratories do more classified types of research. But most universities do not allow classified research on campus because our mission is disseminating knowledge.”

He also pointed to the administration targeting certain countries “because of potential malfeasance by a few members”, as being “highly concerning”.

Robin Garrell, vice provost for graduate education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which hosted the meeting, said universities were being “increasingly challenged by vague expectations on how we should be vetting prospective visiting scholars and even students, based on criteria that we don’t know”.

The political climate in the US is changing, she noted, and is affecting the free flow of students and scholars. “There are political pressures to discourage students and others from coming into the country. Sometimes it is grounded in policies, but sometimes it can just be assertions that could be discouraging to potential participants and exchanges,” Garrell said.

Security issue not unique to the US

The problem of tightening up on immigrating and visiting scholars purportedly on security grounds is not unique to the US. University presidents heard that the general climate surrounding technology transfer has become more politicised in the past year or more in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said: “Australia, like New Zealand, has traditionally looked to the US and UK, but now our strongest trading links are with China and other Asian countries and we are increasingly questioned about the safeguards that we take to protect intellectual property.

“We have a regular dialogue with the security services in Australia. My impression at the moment is that more issues are being raised than answers [given].”

He noted that some have suggested the hiving off of some areas of research that universities will not partner on, but “many areas of focused research have much broader implications”.

‘Utterly ineffective’

However, Rosenbaum noted: “It may be tempting to try to protect ourselves by putting boxes around our researchers and our countries to attempt to constrain the transfer of scientific discoveries and technological innovation,” however, “research is utterly ineffective in that mode. It depends on talent and interaction and the challenge of ideas, all of which may arise anywhere in the world.”

Jacobs also noted that successful programmes that promote student exchanges between Asian countries and Australia, which have been seen as a major success by universities and policy-makers and have facilitated interactions across borders, have led to larger numbers of international students. “It is a very powerful soft power influence.”

However, more recently there has been some “pushback” against the large number of foreign students coming to Australia. “In the current political environment, it is influenced by things that are happening here [in the US] and elsewhere that are flowing through to Australia.”

“University vice-chancellors in Australia have to be pretty brave to put their heads above the parapet and speak out about the importance of this,” Jacobs said.

“This is a big and increasingly concerning area for us,” Jacobs said. “There are geopolitical pressures on all of us that mitigate against us doing certain things that are really important, and that is free flow of people, providing education to people regardless of their background or nationality or ethnicity, the free flow of knowledge and the exchange of research information. These are really challenging issues in a complex world with really difficult tensions.”

In a ‘Presidential Statement’ issued at the end of the conference on Wednesday, university leaders stated: “APRU members benefit from the flow of people around the region, whether as academic researchers or students or as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

“Not only do we gain from attracting the best intellects from many countries, we also gain deep human insights from people with a wide diversity of backgrounds and experience. This enables us to contribute strongly to our own societies with fresh understandings of ourselves, discoveries and innovations in science and technology, and collaborations across borders to solve the pressing problems of our region.”

Among the commitments reiterated by university leaders in their statement was to “further enhance collaborations for faculty and student mobility among our institutions, finding ways to continue to cooperate despite increasing obstacles”.