What you missed over the summer: balancing openness in science with threats to security by foreign researchers


“… to the members of our international campus community, without hesitation and with heartfelt affirmation, let me say: We value you. We support you. We will always welcome you. This is a campus that is unafraid of inclusivity. We are compelled and defined by it. And that will never change.”

These are powerful words written by Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian over the summer.

Now is a good time to finally cover this topic, as many of you will have spent the summer traveling abroad to attend conferences, and collaborate with colleagues.​ I’ve been thinking to write about this important topic for many months. There has been a lot going on. Things may have changed by the time you read this. In any case, here we go.

Over the summer, there have been continuing developments that could affect foreign-born mathematicians and could affect how we all participate in the global scholarly community.

There have always been regulations on international research collaborations, and they tighten and loosen over time. Many scientists are fearful that we are entering a phase of intensified tightening, and worried about what this means for them and their students and colleagues. There is stepped-up interest by our government to identify and eliminate intellectual property theft, cyber-attacks, and espionage that result from foreign influence. Much of this interest is aimed at the Chinese. And, there are implications that extend outside the walls of science— according to Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, the “perceived Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property is one of the factors that led to imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports.” There are simultaneously evolving visa and immigration policies that limit the ability of foreign-born students and scientists to study and work in the U.S.

Over the summer,

You may have seen news headlines, including some scary ones.

On July 5: DeVos cracks down on foreign funding on U.S. campuses
On July 16: Diversity and international collaboration should not become casualties of anti-espionage policies
On August 9: U.S. universities confront a security storm in Congress
On August 30: No, I won’t start spying on my foreign-born students
On September 3: Chinese scientists came to the U.S. to pursue their dreams. Under tighter scrutiny, many are returning home

You may have heard that the Government is stepping up its scrutiny.

Some congressional members are driving ramped-up efforts to prevent foreign entities from taking unfair advantage of the U.S. research enterprise. Senator Grassley (Iowa) has been inquiring about foreign threats to taxpayer-funded research, using his position as the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee to pursue this line of investigation. In April, he sent a letter to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France A. Córdova seeking information regarding the processes in place at NSF to detect and deter threats to NSF-supported research. His letter specifically mentions China’s threats to U.S. national security as well as its talent recruitment programs which he says (quoting a witness at a congressional hearing) are effectively “brain gain programs” that “encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions.” The NSF responded in a letter to Senator Grassley, dated April 26.

Also in Congress, bills have been introduced to protect intellectual property and protect against espionage. There are three bills of note:

  1. Protect Our Universities Act (1879)
  2. Securing American Science and Technology Act of 2019 (H.R.3038)
  3. Secure American Research Act of 2019 (S.2133)

The latter two are similar in their intent, though S.2133 has language that worries many university administrators. For example, it would create a registry which would list individuals who have failed to disclose foreign affiliations to their federal funding agencies. The first bill takes a more aggressive approach; specifically, it would require students from China, Iran, and Russia to undergo background checks before they can work on professors’ research projects that would be considered sensitive (as determined by the Department of Homeland Security).

Other bills have been introduced to remove barriers for STEM educated international students who want to work in the US after they complete PhDs, such as the Keep STEM Talent Act (S.1744).

Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier has now been at the helm of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for several months. Before joining the administration, he was Vice President for Research and Regents’ Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He served two six-year terms on the National Science Board, the governing body of the NSF, including the last four years as Vice-Chairman, having been nominated by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and twice confirmed by the United States Senate. On September 16, he issued a letter to scientific societies, including the AMS. The letter describes OSTP’s concerns and planned actions for protecting the US research enterprise. One such activity is the formation (in May) of the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE). JCORE has four subcommittees — the Research Security subcommittee, which will focus on foreign-power interference in U.S. research, as well as subcommittees on Safe and Inclusive Research Environments; Research Rigor and Integrity; and Coordinating Administrative Requirements for Research.

Relatedly, the White House put out its annual budget priorities memorandum for research and development which specifically calls for needed “protection of our ideas and research outcomes.” We are, according to the memo, experiencing America’s Second Bold Era of Science and Technology but warns that “Unfortunately, this Second Bold Era also features new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively.” The memo does not discuss the benefits or importance or necessity of international collaboration for scientific advancement.

The NSF currently has hundreds of awards that involve international activities. The NSF is tightening policies, and the response to Grassley’s request outlines some of these. A revised draft of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) was published earlier this year and also includes some changes. One change is that “proposals that include funding to be provided to an international branch campus of a U.S. IHE,[1] must include in the project description, justification for why the project activities cannot be performed at the U.S. campus.” Another change is internal, and aims to standardize U.S. citizenship requirements and foreign government talent recruitment program participation restrictions for NSF employees. This would affect you if you are thinking to apply to be a rotator at the NSF. The NSF has commissioned a report (by the JASONs) to assess how universities can maintain openness, while being cautious about security. This report is expected to be completed by the end of the calendar year.

Finally, there have been delays in visa processing that are affecting international students and scholars. While stepped-up processing affects individuals from several countries, the target is clearly China. Christopher Ford, head of the State Department’s international security bureau, has said that new procedures are in place “to improve how we scrutinize the flow of students and researchers coming from China in order to weed out the occasional “bad apples” who travel abroad to acquire technology for Beijing’s military machine and repressive domestic security apparatus.” Congressional members from both parties are taking note and beginning to investigate. The American Institute of Physics has written more extensively on visa delays.

If you are specifically interested in the risks to academia as perceived by the FBI, you will find their 2018 report “China: The Risk to Academia” informative. It describes the risks and gives resources and training materials for protecting your university, as well as hints for how to “spot students or professors” who might be providing information to foreign adversaries (they may not even know they are providing the information). I know this sounds alarming and, to echo Steven Aftergood, reflect the current state of the US-China relationship. To try to balance our anxiety, it can be noted that the report starts with comforting remarks: “The vast majority of the 1.4 million international scholars on U.S. campuses pose no threat to their host institutions, classmates, or research fields. On the contrary, these international visitors represent valuable contributors to their campuses’ achievements…”

You may have wondered if we are the only country thinking about this, and how much of this is due to (real or perceived) xenophobia of our current administration and lawmakers.

The U.S. is not the only country ramping up scrutiny of foreign influence at universities. The Australian Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced the creation of a University Foreign Interference Taskforce to address concerns, arising at least in part due to reports of Chinese hacking of Australian university computer systems and allegations of universities unknowingly working with entities connected to China’s military. The Australian taskforce will have four working groups to address cybersecurity, intellectual property, foreign collaborations, and communications to raise awareness.

Russia has been issuing rather alarming-sounding rules for collaborations there, as described by the New York Times.

Some of you have told me about foreign mathematicians who have applied for J-1 visas to visit your university, who have had their visa applications rejected for failing the English proficiency test. You may have wondered if this is a new requirement unveiled by the Trump administration. In fact, it was 2015 when the State Department published regulations requiring that all J-1 Exchange Visitor applications include an English Proficiency Form. Most universities have a webpage, like this one at the University of Nebraska explaining this rule.

There are, in addition to those mentioned in the preceding section, new policies and plans for changes to existing policies being introduced. For example, in October of 2018, the administration proposed a plan to introduce a maximum period of authorized stay for student visas, replacing the current practice of issuing student visas for the duration of studies.

And, it is true, foreign scientists are being fired from academic positions for failing to disclose foreign funding. This includes two professors who were fired at Emory University; four of their postdocs were also fired, and told to leave the country within 30 days.

One can conjecture about why, from 2016 to 2017, the number of international undergraduates fell by 2.2% and the number of international graduate students in the US dropped by 5.5%. I shouldn’t give that sort of stat without more nuance and updated information. And, the story is more nuanced. The numbers vary by discipline, and by country. While overall foreign graduate student enrollment in all fields decreased, foreign graduate student enrollment in mathematics and statistics increased that year.  From a recent National Science Board report: “Although 2018 marked a second year of decline in the total number of foreign students studying in the United States, the decline was small (less than 1%), and more undergraduate and graduate students were studying S&E fields. Four countries—China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—account for more than half of foreign students in the United States. The number of Chinese S&E graduate students studying in the United States has continued to increase (by 11% over the last 2 years), whereas the number of Indian S&E graduate students sharply declined (by 22% over the last 2 years).”

You may have received a letter from your college or university president.

Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian wrote to his community in August: “As public concerns and political debates emerge about global engagement in higher education, we must ensure that our research ecosystem remains strong. This requires steadfast commitment to both the free flow of ideas and the safeguarding of our work as required by the national interest.”

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger wrote the August 30 opinion piece mentioned at the beginning of this post.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif has written to his community.

Inside Higher Ed published an opinion piece by Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, and Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities calling for the need “to bolster the security of their research without sacrificing the openness and collaboration that serves as a keystone of their research enterprises” and calling on universities to form “a strong partnership with federal intelligence and security agencies.” While this piece addresses the new challenges straight on, it simultaneously calls for calm by pointing out that “America’s research universities have a strong track record of working with the government to secure classified or otherwise controlled information conducted on university campuses.”

University leaders are also voicing concerns specifically about the visa scrutiny discussed above. They are writing letters to elected officials; one such example is written by the Presidents of several New Jersey institutions to the New Jersey State Assembly.

You may have wondered what the situation is in mathematics, specifically, and what the AMS is doing on this front.

We all know that mathematics is a global enterprise. More than 50 percent of Ph.D. degrees awarded in 2015–16 in the U.S. went to non-U.S. citizens.[2] Almost 70 percent of AMS authors in our four primary journals reside outside the U.S.[3] Roughly 20 percent of AMS membership is international. The AMS cohosts an international math conference each year and supports other international meetings, including the International Congress of Mathematicians. The AMS supports policies that promote and strengthen international cooperation in mathematics research and education.

 The AMS joined 60 scientific societies on a letter to the White House (sent September 4) stating that our “organizations and members are witnessing an escalating concern among U.S. and international scientists that new policies and procedures under consideration to minimize security risks will have the unintended effect of harming the scientific enterprise.” The American Statistical Association (ASA) and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) also signed. The signatory societies ask that the Joint Committee on Research Environments (JCORE) consider a broad range of perspectives from the science and engineering community and for the opportunity to engage in the committee deliberations. (This committee was convened by Dr. Droegemeier and is described above). I have met Dr. Droegemeier and shared with him the demographics of the mathematics community, our reliance on foreign-born graduate students, and AMS support of the international research community. Dr. Droegemeier’s letter to societies—referred to above—responds to the September 4 letter from societies.

Additionally, the AMS joined dozens of other societies endorsing H.R.3038, discussed above.

Closing words

Temporary visa holders earn more than a third of the Ph.D.’s awarded by U.S. institutions in science and engineering. In mathematics, we are highly dependent on graduate students from China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan. This is consistent with overall trends in science and engineering, as the bar chart shows.

Source: The NSF 2017 Survey of Earned Doctorates (published December 2018): https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/report/who-earns-a-u-s-doctorate#report-citizenship

We must maintain openness in our universities.

We must keep the country attractive for all students and postdocs.

We must keep our nation attractive for immigration.

At the same time, we must increase STEM participation of all groups.

I’ll close with another great quote from Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian:

“As we embark upon a new academic year full of promise and opportunity, let us reaffirm our belief in the power of education to transcend social and economic divides. Let us take pride in knowing how much our work matters. And let us continue embracing the diversity that has always made, and continues to make, it all possible.”


[1] An IHE is an institute of higher education.

[2] From the Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences and for the period July 1, 2015–June 30, 2016: www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/annual-survey

[3] During 2014–18, in four AMS journals: Journal of the AMS, Transactions of the AMS, Proceedings of the AMS, and Mathematics of Computation.


About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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