Allowing Foreign Governments To Fund Research At U.S. Colleges Raises Concerns

Nov 7, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 7:09 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The openness of American universities to foreign money for research has been a hallmark of higher education. That has the federal government concerned. The country that gave the most to American universities in the last school year was China. Cardiff Garcia and Sally Herships from our podcast The Indicator From Planet Money explain.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: All the way back in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act. It's a federal law that covers everything from financial aid to work study jobs for students.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: In the mid-1980s, some new text gets wedged into the Higher Education Act. And this new part of the law required colleges and universities to disclose all gifts from or contracts with a foreign government or entity of at least $250,000. The government was worried that our enemies were everywhere, even on college campuses.

HERSHIPS: But for the next approximately 3 1/2 decades, everyone just ignores this law.

GARCIA: Until this summer, when the Department of Education began investigating Cornell, Georgetown, Rutgers and Texas A&M because the Department of Education was worried that they were not making those disclosures.

HERSHIPS: Stephanie Segal is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's a nonpartisan think tank.

STEPHANIE SEGAL: At the root of the concern is, where is this research and the technologies that come out of it? Where might they give an adversary military advantage over the United States?

HERSHIPS: And this is where we get to those foreign-funded government research, projects the ones that are the problem. And it's where we get to this really important idea we talked about earlier - openness, which affects both schools and America's economy.

SEGAL: Increasingly, you're seeing an assessment that openness, while it's a source of strength to the United States, is sometimes being used strategically against us.

GARCIA: But for the U.S. to fight back within the open world of academics, it's kind of complicated because if you get it wrong, you risk creating a xenophobic atmosphere at schools. According to the National Association of International Educators, there's been a 10% drop in new international students to the United States over the last couple of years.

HERSHIPS: And when you add up all of these possible losses - lost tuition dollars from foreign students, the loss of potential collaboration of shared research - and when you try to balance that with the concerns of the federal government - the ones it has about China trying to take advantage of America's openness - it leaves both the schools and the government with one big question.

SEGAL: How do you achieve this balance where you preserve that openness and all of the benefits that come with it, but you are aware of a threat that is actually posed from that very openness?

GARCIA: Stephanie says U.S. schools really do need to maintain their openness, and those schools should also ask for a little bit more clarity about concerns and risk from the U.S. government because the government has been a little bit vague. She says the worst-case outcome would be xenophobia - shutting the doors of the U.S. to international collaboration, thereby undermining America's own strength.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this podcast, we incorrectly refer to the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators as the National Association of International Educators.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.