GAO: ICE could enhance efforts to address technology transfer risks

A third of foreign graduate students studying STEM at US universities are Chinese nationals, some with access to sensitive research.

Approximately 723,000 Chinese nationals participated in university-level STEM programs from 2016 to 2020. Recent reports have noted the importance and challenges in combating undue foreign influence, particularly from China, while maintaining an open research environment.

US agencies have identified several factors that indicate the types of students, such as those from a country of concern like China, who may pose a greater risk of transferring technology to foreign entities. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains a database related to these factors, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that it has not evaluated whether it needs to be updated to capture more data related to these risks.

According to GAO, ICE “has incomplete data that may indicate whether foreign students and scholars pose risks to the transfer of technology from US universities to foreign entities.” ICE’s database of foreign students and scholars contains data on the number of graduate students from countries affected by technology transfer, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Graduate students studying in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field were also identified as more likely to be involved in sensitive research. However, the GAO found that ICE did not set milestones to complete a requested assessment on the need to modify its database to collect additional data related to some risk factors, in part because it focused available resources on other priorities. In addition, the watchdog found that information about student employment in the US, which could indicate whether they have access to technology, is incomplete.

To safeguard university research from being transferred to the benefit of the PRC and other countries, U.S. research funding agencies have increased investigations of researchers for fraud and failure to disclose potential sources of foreign influence, according to agency data. These investigations have resulted in individuals being removed from research positions due to undisclosed affiliations, such as receiving funding from a PRC-affiliated institution. The GAO Nov. 16 report said that “while agency officials acknowledged racial bias concerns in their investigations involving China, they stressed that no decisions are based on individual characteristics such as nationality or visa status.” “. Officials also noted that the subjects of the surveys were more likely to be permanent university employees rather than visiting foreign students and scholars.

GAO is making two recommendations to ICE to establish milestones for a required assessment and improve data on factors that may indicate technology transfer risk. ICE agreed with the recommendations.

Read the full GAO report

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