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Q&A: Research post-9/11

Keith Moffat, the Louis Black professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, became Chicago’s deputy provost for research in 2002. He oversees the University Research Administration (URA), which reviews funding applications and accepts awards. Born in Scotland, Moffat has degrees from Edinburgh and Cambridge. Formerly at Cornell, in 1990 he came to Chicago, where he heads BioCARS, the structural-biology component of the Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources.

In December Moffat sent a memo to U of C deans, directors, and department chairs, outlining new and potential federal research and export controls, embargoes, and trade sanctions. The e-mail, he says, was “a heads-up, because we are operating in a really different environment post-9/11.”

Why did you send the URA memo?

It is clear that universities engage in activities, as part of our normal business, that are scrutinized anew in the light of post-9/11 security concerns. So one is always trying to balance appropriate security concerns with academics’ freedom of inquiry. Some activities that seemed completely innocuous in the pre-9/11 days would no longer be regarded as innocuous. For example, an archaeologist going off to conduct a dig in the Middle East and taking along a laptop, global positioning equipment to identify the exact location of the dig, some money to pay local workers—these activities, in countries where the U.S. government suspects terrorism may have local support, will be scrutinized now.

Has the URA denied any research requests because of these potential regulations?

No, but we have had to do some scrambling to acquire the necessary permits to conduct certain activities. And certain activities have been barred—you may not, in fact, take your global-positioning equipment or laptop computers to an archaeological dig in Iran, for example.

Your memo warned that some foreign nationals and overseas researchers may not be able to conduct certain activities.

This issue is by no means settled, but there is a huge debate going on that affects all research universities, and we interact very closely with our sister institutions to develop a common voice toward the government. On one hand we are sensitive to considerations of national security, and on the other hand we’re sensitive to freedom of scholarly inquiry. Such freedom traditionally has taken the form that, provided you are legally residing in this country—you have the appropriate visa, etcetera, issued by the U.S. government—then you are free to engage in all scholarly activities in the University. You can take courses, conduct research on any topic that is appropriate, earn grades, receive degrees, travel to attend bona fide scholarly conferences.

The government is considering more stringent controls, whereby individuals who have been legally admitted to this country and who are students, postdocs, or what have you, might be barred from engaging in activities that would lead to what are called “deemed exports.” If you are a student in my class, for example, I am in some sense exporting my knowledge to you. But let’s suppose you are a citizen of, say, Syria. You will, when you graduate, perhaps return to Syria. You are therefore taking with you the knowledge that you gained from my classroom or research endeavors. That would constitute what the government calls a deemed export. I’m not mailing a CD to you in Syria or exporting a piece of apparatus to you or an instruction manual on how to conduct some experiment or repair some equipment; I am simply instructing you, teaching you. But the transfer of certain types of information within the U.S., from a U.S. national to a person from an export-restricted country, may be regarded by the government as requiring an export license—protecting the deemed export.

Clearly, were such regulations to be imposed, they would completely alter the way in which scholarship and teaching are conducted at any university. The security consideration is in a head-on collision with the way a university works.

These rules have not yet been imposed?

No, but there’s some pretty vigorous discussion going on in the Justice, Commerce, State, and Defense departments. The universities’ view is that it is the government’s job to assess the merits of visa applicants. If they are found to be qualified to receive a student visa, then once here they should be students on the same footing, including security footing, as anybody else.

How would the proposed changes affect the research community?

They would have a profound and I daresay unacceptable impact. To state the obvious, we have to conform to the laws of the land. So if the government in its wisdom wishes to alter the laws, then we will obviously express our views on those laws while the debate is going on, then conform to whatever regulations come to pass.

What’s been the community’s response?

In the parts that know about it—and it’s still typically at the administrator type level, not just here but at other institutions as well—the response, frankly, is horror.

The argument is usually made, and it has a lot of force, that America has greatly benefited, over many decades, from importing talented students, postdocs, and senior staff from all around the world. We benefit more from their experience and brains than we’d lose from the fact that we are giving them information. There’s a real benefit in American universities traditionally being the most international in the world. Until recently few prominent European or Japanese universities had many foreign students. That is now changing. One could look at it from a general point of view, that the role of universities in American society is being reexamined in the light of these new security concerns.