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Did anyone really anticipate just how complicated internationalization in higher education was going to be? The idealists among us hoped for that the flow of talent around the globe would lead to multinational collaborations to speed up innovation and the development new knowledge that would address the world’s most pressing problems and ultimately improve quality of life everywhere. We certainly underestimated the enduring legacy of political, economic, and military competition and mistrust among nations. Nor had we calculated the resurgence and effect of extremist ideology.

Sadly, there are very real issues that have to be considered with the mobility of students and scholars. Espionage, security, and theft of intellectual property are real problems, but growing paranoia may become an obstacle to scientific and technical advancement when collaboration is constrained by national borders. 

Incidents where international students and scholars are suspected (and accused) of posing a risk seem to be increasing with varying degrees of validity. Recent examples include the following.

Perhaps one of the more egregious interventions was the decision of US Immigration to impede Ismail Ajjawi’s enrollment as an undergraduate at Harvard and return him to Lebanon after inspecting his social media postings and finding criticism of the US and President Trump—posted not even by Mr. Ajjawi but by others appearing on his mobile phone. (If criticizing President Trump poses a risk to US security, I am expecting a knock on my door any minute.)

Nine Chinese students bound for Arizona State University to enroll as undergraduates in engineering, business and life sciences were turned back at LAX by Customs and Border Protection with no clear explanation. 

The FBI is questioning US graduates of Peking University’s Yencheng Academy to determine whether they have been recruited to Chinese espionage efforts. One has to wonder how many other scholars returning from abroad will soon be added to the list of people to be interviewed. 

A professor at the University of Kansas was indicted in federal court for allegedly failing to disclose a contract with a Chinese University. The professor is accused of receiving federal grant money from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation at the same time he was paid by a Chinese research university, a fact that he failed to disclose. 

The University of California, Berkeley followed Oxford University in ending collaboration with Huawei after the US Department of Justice brought criminal charges against the company for theft of trade secrets and other violations. The University of Texas Austin is also reviewing its relationship with Huawei, a Chinese company that invests millions in communications technology research worldwide. MIT has instituted a three-phase review of new international projects for certain countries, currently China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.  

And the Trump government has announced that representatives of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will be meeting with scholars and visiting US campuses to discuss the issue of “research security.” According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "For scholars, the threat that they could be investigated by the government for their contacts in other countries is real. Already this year, scientists at Emory University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have lost their jobs after the National Institutes of Health wrote letters to their universities highlighting behavior that the agency found suspicious. In May the NIH said it was investigating more than 50 institutions for a range of behavior it saw as questionable."

The threat of being investigated by the White House is likely to have a chilling effect on research collaboration.

Paranoia isn’t limited to the US. As indicated above, Oxford is cutting some international ties. The Ministry of Education in Russia has increased its monitoring of interactions between Russian and foreign researchers. Among the features of the new policy is a “recommendation” that Russian scientists ask permission to meet with foreign colleagues at least five days in advance. The Kremlin insists that protection is needed against scientific and industrial espionage.

But there are many reasons for concern. There have been repeated reports by Human Rights Watch about how the Chinese government interferes with academic freedom on campuses outside of China. 

Economic espionage and intellectual property theft are not new. The US has indulged in quite a bit of it. In 1787, American agent, Andrew Mitchell, was intercepted by British authorities while trying to smuggle models and drawing of British industrial machines out of the country. Few know that the American Industrial Revolution was in large part built on the theft of intellectual property. The British had developed mill machines establishing their prominence in the international textile market in the 19th century. In 1810, Francis Cabot Lowell managed to memorize enough of Britain’s technology for weaving cloth to duplicate the machinery upon his return to the US. The British attempted to retain industrial design secrets by forbidding the emigration of skilled textile workers. Nevertheless, Samuel Slater, a mill supervisor, managed to sneak out of England  and use this “stolen” knowledge to improve the technology to manufacture cotton and contribute to an economic boom in New England. 

Today, science and technology have replaced manufacturing in positioning a country in the international economy. The US has led the world in scientific and technical innovation for decades, but this prowess is being challenged. The dilemma facing the US and other developed countries is whether this technology and knowledge should be shared openly. Where should the boundary of “proprietary” and “collaborative” be established? How do we all protect our security and our values in the face of easy mobility and growing reach of national governments?

Yet there are also important gains that result from allowing scientists from multiple nations to share facilities and conduct research together. Consider the potential of collaborations such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) project in Switzerland where 28 countries have come together to advance scientific knowledge.

Closing the doors to foreign scholars and foreign investment may hurt us all in the end. MIT, one of the world’s leading centers of innovation indicates that 42% of their graduate enrollment is international and 30% of overall enrollment. Foreign-born graduates with doctoral degrees have made a huge contribution to innovation in the US by working at startups but it has become much more difficult for these individuals to remain in the US. 

Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, warns, “You don’t want to send the message to arguably the largest talent pool in the world that they are a despised class in America.”

Do we share knowledge, encourage collaboration among researchers and pursue shared objectives or do we limit collaboration in the interest of competitive international positioning and national security? These are complicated issues for complicated times. 


Liz Reisberg is a co-editor of The World View.  She is an independent consultant in higher education whose work focuses primarily on Latin America. She is also a research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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