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Student of Concern 

Will we be more secure -- or just less competitive -- if the government forces hundreds of thousands of international science students to get export licenses simply to look through a microscope?

Wednesday, May 18 2005
At a tiny round table in the shade at Caffe Strada in Berkeley, Arjun Gupta, 19, sat diligently working on problems for an upcoming freshman chemical engineering seminar. Struggling to keep his long, black, curly hair out of his face, Gupta, an Indian citizen who has been in the United States for less than a year, made it clear that he was adjusting well to life in America. He loves chemistry, living in the dorms, and his new American friends.

"I don't have even a single friend from India here," he said with a laugh. "I've been really lucky to make friends from all over the world." Gupta and his friends "never really go out," just stick around the dorms. He said he spends much of his time studying.

Gupta is the youngest of three brothers; the elder two both studied at the University of Southern California and returned to India after earning MBAs. Gupta wants to go back to India, too, but not until he finishes a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He said he misses India, especially driving the chaotic streets of Delhi, his hometown. But he believes in the American dream.

"I love it here," he said, his dark brown eyes slightly hidden by his unruly hair. He said he loves everything about America, but he has two favorite features. "The education is the best in the world. And everything works efficiently, on time," he said happily.

Unfortunately for Gupta, his two favorite things about America may soon change. New federal rules proposed by the Department of Commerce in March could impede Gupta's access to educational equipment and force him to apply for government licenses to use specific technology in the classroom, each of which could take months to acquire. In fact, hundreds of thousands of international students and scientists working and studying in the U.S. could lose access to equipment and technology that they have had routine use of until now.

Because Gupta is studying chemical engineering, he will eventually encounter what the government calls "dual-use technology" -- technology that has both civilian and military applications. Under the new Commerce Department proposal, the use of everything from basic computer systems, semiconductors, and training manuals to microscopes and telescopes will require some international students to apply for government licenses before they can legally have access to or study the technology.

Just as guns and corn require export licenses when shipped abroad, the transfer of knowledge to foreign students in U.S. universities has long been classified a "deemed export" under U.S. Export Administration regulations and can also require a license. But it is only students such as Gupta, who are from what the government calls "countries of concern," who will be hit by the new rules, which target students based solely on nationality.

According to changes recommended by the Department of Commerce, universities could soon be forced to apply for individual licenses from the federal government before they can "export" knowledge to specific students about the operation, installation, maintenance, or repair of certain equipment. But thousands of academic subjects fit into the dual-use category, including computer science; mathematics; civil, mechanical, and nuclear engineering; and biological and chemical studies.

"If I had to apply with the government every time I needed access to a cluster [a large set of computers used to run complex programs], it would be very painful," says Ravi Kolluri, a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. He works with three-dimensional computer imaging, which has both military and civilian applications. He will likely have his doctorate before the new regulations take effect, but if such regulations had been in place when he applied to school in the U.S., he says, he "would have gone to school somewhere else." Kolluri plans to work in the United States after completing his degree. Once in the workforce, he may have to apply to use equipment that he's had open access to for the last seven years as a student.

Gupta's reaction to the proposed rules was one of confusion and denial. Upon hearing of the export rules and their potential to obstruct his future as an engineer, he hesitantly shook his head. "I'm surprised India is on that list. I thought America was very fond of India," he said. When asked if he too would go somewhere else if these rules took effect, he smiled, almost shyly, and said, "Something like that couldn't happen here."

But the rules are quite real, and their implementation threatens more than just Gupta's plans.

The proposed regulations would make universities apply to the Bureau of Industry and Security, an arm of the Commerce Department, for deemed export licenses for students who hail from 12 so-called countries of concern and who intend to do research in dual-use areas. The new regulations seem likely to create huge bureaucratic obstacles to foreign students' attendance at U.S. universities. In 2003, the Commerce Department reviewed fewer than 1,000 deemed export license applications for foreign nationals. If the new regulations are adopted as proposed, that number could shoot as high as 350,000.

Beyond the bureaucratic problems, the regulations have enormous economic implications, pose questions about discrimination, and create international-relations paradoxes. Students from China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, and Syria will have to obtain deemed export licenses before engaging in some types of classroom research.

University administrators with knowledge of the proposed regulations say the rules are so burdensome that they will turn large numbers of science students from certain countries away from American research institutions. These students -- and the discoveries and inventions they help make -- will go to universities in other countries, over time depriving the U.S. of one of its main economic advantages in science and technology.

Meanwhile, foreign students whose home countries are not considered to be "of concern" can study dual-use technology without the bureaucracy and uncertainty surrounding the export licensing process.

Inherent in the new rules is a discriminatory contradiction: Students from India, which has cordial relations with the U.S., will need licenses to study, but students from Saudi Arabia -- home country for most of the participants in the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and much of the financing and ideology behind Islamist terrorism -- will not.

About The Author

Cristi Hegranes


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