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May 11, 2005

Dumb and dumber

Guest post by Revere

Removing your shoes at the airport is dumb. Here is something dumber: Proposed Federal rules restricting foreign researchers' access to equipment subject to export controls, even if the underlying research is exempt from licensing (Chronicle for Higher Education [subscription required, alas]).

Example: a fermenter, a piece of equipment is used to grow cells, often cells with recombinant DNA. This is a common piece of equipment, widely available. The new rules would require universities and biotech companies to obtain licenses for foreigners using such devices, even if the work itself will be openly published and is uncontroversial. Why?

The Commerce Department says the changes are necessary to ensure that spies and terrorists do not obtain access to equipment that could have military applications.


. . . some academics say that the government has gone overboard, imposing so many licensing and clearance requirements that it is becoming difficult for universities to attract foreign students and scholars. The number of foreign students on American campuses declined last year by 2.4 percent -- the first drop in foreign enrollments since the 1971-72 academic year.

"The issue here is death by a thousand cuts," said Eric L. Hirschhorn of the Industry Coalition on Technology Transfer, noting that some foreign researchers must already undergo extensive background checks before obtaining a visa.

Peter Lichtenbaum, assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, said the department would "not shy away from doing the right thing because of impacts in other areas."

As I said: Dumb and dumber.


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Vodka can be used as an explosive device, with glass shrapnel. Uh, oh. Can't let any foreign students purchase alcohol. Might be "used" in a terrorist attack that would "undermine" our free and just society. Actually...internal insurgents could use a chemical like alcohol to undermine our free and just society, maybe it should be regulated and kept out of the hands of average citizens unless they have been properly screened and given a permit to use the explosive substance. Hmm, I hear gasoline* is explosive...

*etc. ad infinitum

Indeed, completely idiotic from an American standpoint. But put simply, largely good news for the rest of the world. The US has been a parasitical force when it comes to sucking up academic talents over the decades (not so unlike trading oil in dollars worldwide). This may seem benign to most but in reality it is a highly controversial practise that risks draining many LDCs of brilliant minds.

Isn't the problem that we let students stay? US labs are an important source of training and it isn't clear to me that if the labs were completely closed to the outside there would be sufficient venues elsewhere. The problem is that the community of origin then loses the talent from then on. The brain drain issue is a two edged sword. There is tremendous talent outside the US that can be used to contribute to science, wherever it works. I am torn between the needs and claims of the originating locale and the general principle that science knows no borders (nor should we set up borders for anything). If we had no borders and no passports there would be free movement for scientists. So there is something to be said on both sides.

There's an enormous opportunity here for any nation which is able to finance a big research establishment. China, the EU, and Japan are the obvious contenders, though China's governmental system and Japan's closed culture work against it, and people say that the EU has too many other things going on. Maybe South Korea and Taiwan are sleepers -- they're more receptive to outsiders than China or Japan.

If Bush's successor is elected I expect a real emigration of talent from the US, not just hot air. I'd emigrate myself if I could, but I'm not a talent who is going to change the scientific balance of power.

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