A third of foreign graduate students studying STEM at U.S. universities are Chinese nationals—some with access to sensitive research.
About 723,000 Chinese nationals participated in graduate-level STEM programs from 2016 through 2020. Recent reports have noted the importance of, and challenges in, combating undue foreign influence, particularly from China, while maintaining an open research environment.
U.S. agencies have identified several factors indicating the types of students—such as being from a country of concern like China—who may pose a greater risk of transferring technology to foreign entities. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps a database related to these factors but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that it hasn’t assessed if it needs updating to capture additional data related to these risks.
According to GAO, ICE “has incomplete data that may indicate whether foreign students and scholars pose risks for transferring technology from U.S. universities to foreign entities”. ICE’s foreign student and scholar database contains data on the number of graduate students from countries of concern for technology transfer, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Graduate students studying in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field have also been identified as more likely to be involved in sensitive research. However, GAO found ICE has not established milestones to complete a required assessment of whether it needs to modify its database to collect additional data related to some risk factors, in part because it has focused available resources on other priorities. Further, the watchdog found that information related to students’ employment in the U.S., which may indicate whether they have access to technology, is incomplete.
To safeguard university research from transfer for the benefit of the PRC and other countries, U.S. agencies that fund research increased investigations of researchers for fraud and failures to disclose potential sources of foreign influence, according to agency data. These investigations have resulted in the removal of individuals from research positions because of undisclosed affiliations, such as receiving funding from a PRC-affiliated institution. GAO’s November 16 report states that “while agency officials acknowledged concerns related to racial bias in their investigations involving China, they emphasized that no decisions are based on individual characteristics such as nationality or visa status”. Officials also noted that the subjects of investigations were more likely to be permanent university employees than visiting foreign students and scholars.
GAO is making two recommendations to ICE to establish milestones for a required assessment and improve data related to factors that may indicate risk of technology transfer. ICE concurred with the recommendations.