Lab Regulations Upset Schools

Many United States universities—including Harvard—are protesting governmental regulations, proposed earlier this year, that would segregate foreign students and researchers working in certain laboratories and require them to wear badges and gain special approval to work with a variety of equipment.

The new regulations, which are pending separately in the Department of Commerce (DoC) and the Department of Defense (DoD), are designed to control what are known as “deemed exports,” according to the DoC. In its proposal, the DoD describes deemed exports as the transmission of information abroad or “any access to export-controlled information or technology by a foreign national.”

The DoD’s proposal requires special identification for foreign nationals working in laboratories and segregated work areas for information and technology to be controlled. Both these recommendations and the DoC’s come in the wake of recent suggestions, from within the government, for tighter regulations.

The proposed changes, which are expected to be released from both the DoC and the DoD within the next few months, were aired for public response at the start of the summer.

In a June 24 letter to the DoC, University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote that implementing the restrictions would “have the practical effect of grinding research to a halt” by making impractical administrative demands of the University’s faculty and staff.

Before work with controlled research tools—which would include “specialized cameras, oscilloscopes, sensors, monitoring systems, lasers, pumps, amplifiers, and spectrum analyzers”—could proceed normally, Summers wrote, the University would have to create a personalized plan describing the access and controls for all of its 3,400 foreign students and 3,650 foreign researchers.

Summers also objected to the DoC’s proposal that license applications consider country of birth, as well as citizenship and permanent residence—a measure that, according to the DoC’s summary of the proposal, was intended to prevent researchers from hiding their political loyalties behind a new citizenship. Summers called this requirement “neither reasonable nor permissible” and said that Harvard does not collect this information because of federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin.

An Oct. 12 response from the Association of American Universities (AAU)—which represents 60 research institutions, including Harvard—called the proposal “discriminatory and, frankly, un-American.”

In a letter to the DoD, John Huchra, Harvard’s vice provost for research policy, wrote, in an Oct. 11 letter, that the badging requirement would violate Harvard’s “long history of treating all our members with the same respect, regardless of nationality or citizenship.”

The proposals also do not make a distinction between “fundamental research”—research that will be published in journals or otherwise made public—and classified research. Fundamental research is exempt from deemed-export controls under the current rules.

The AAU statement expressed concern that, unless an exception is made explicit in the new rules, onerous control clauses would be tacked onto contracts for all types of research.

This “would harm U.S. national security by forcing universities to turn down DoD contracts,” the organization stated.

It also suggested that the proposals be revised in light of criticism and recirculated for comment.

Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations, said he is expecting such revision.

“Right now what we’re expecting is that they will eventually craft or revise a...rule that would once again be sent out for comments from universities,” he said. “We’re sort of in this process part.”

—May Habib and William L. Jusino contributed to the reporting of this article.