- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

As America responds to the realities of terrorism, we have a responsibility to maintain the openness of scientific research, and international access to our research universities.

What do our homeland security, open science and accessible campuses have to do with each other? Simply put, our natural impulse when threatened is to wall ourselves off and regulate the release of information that might be of potential use to our enemies. But the future economic vitality and quality of life in America depend on the continued rapid advance of science and technology, and on the education of scientists and engineers. In turn, advances in research and education depend critically on openness of process, openness of publication, and openness of participation within our institutions and across national boundaries.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and our sister institutions take very seriously our responsibility to serve our nation by applying our talents and capabilities to the protection of human life and infrastructure in our homeland and throughout the world. This is a given.

To do so, we draw on the best minds in the world. The openness of U.S. research universities to foreign students and scholars has been overwhelmingly successful in building the excellence of our institutions, enhancing the educational experience of our students, contributing to American industry and academia, and building good will for the U.S. around the world.

At MIT, for example, recent Nobel Prize recipients include professors born in Japan, India, Mexico, Italy and Germany, as well as in the U.S. And American industry relies greatly on engineers and computer scientists born in other countries. Most of them came here as graduate students. In short, our nation has benefited enormously from the talents of those who came to study in the U.S.

Now, however, we are in perilous times and wonder whether we should reconsider our openness to international students. Clearly, the resolution of this issue requires an ongoing, substantive dialogue between the academic community and the federal government.

That has begun with the Bush administration and thus far has proceeded carefully and thoughtfully. Nonetheless, vigilance is required. This partnership is fragile vulnerable to political winds that can shift in a moment.

What are some of the steps we should take and issues we should consider?

First, we must maintain the appropriate division of responsibility.

Universities are responsible for evaluating the academic credentials of international students seeking admission. The State Department, through its consular officers, must judge the appropriateness of issuing an entrance visa to each admitted student or scholar. These distinct roles must not be confused.

Once students arrive in this country, their host universities need to maintain and provide to the government fundamental "directory information," including whether each individual is enrolled and what area of study he or she is pursuing. The higher education community has supported, and continues to support, such tracking, through a new federal computer system, SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System).

Should international students be restricted in what they may study? President Bush in October 2001 directed the federal government, in consultation with the higher education community, to determine "sensitive areas of study" that should be off-limits to students from certain nations.

The determination of what is "sensitive" is to be made, case by case, by an Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS). It is anticipated that IPASS will determine if foreign students or scholars intend to engage in research that is both uniquely available in the U.S. and relevant to the development, deployment or delivery of weapons of mass destruction, in which case they could be denied entry. This is an appropriate task, but it is a slippery slope.

Our nation's scientific research and education could be damaged if IPASS were to veer from this narrowly focused mission. It should not expand the definition of "sensitive areas of study" beyond research directly relevant to weapons of mass destruction; seek to declare academic courses or classes off limits; or impose additional academic restrictions on international students after they have been admitted to the U.S.

In an age when the rapid advance of science and technology is essential to sustaining our health, economy and quality of life, traditional American values of openness in education and research must prevail. But this will be possible only if we in research universities contribute our talents to maintaining the security of our homeland, and if the federal government and academia maintain a respectful, substantive and effective dialogue between those who do science and those who are charged with protecting the nation.

In so doing, we should recall Edward Teller's statement that, "Secrecy is not compatible with science, but is even less compatible with democratic procedure."


Charles M. Vest is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article is adapted from his annual report, "Response and Responsibility: Balancing Security And Openness In Research and Education."


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