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New Florida Law Blocks Chinese Students From Academic Labs

A new state law is thwarting faculty at Florida’s public universities who want to hire Chinese graduate students and postdocs to work in their labs.

In effect since July, the law prohibits institutions from taking money from or partnering with entities in China and six other “countries of concern.” The list of banned interactions includes offering anyone living in one of those countries a contract to do research. Students could be hired if they pass a rigorous vetting by state officials. But how that process would work is not clear, and the 12 public colleges and universities covered by the law are still writing rules to implement the statute.

More than 280 faculty members at the University of Florida, which has the state’s largest research portfolio, have signed a petition urging UF to clear up the confusion-and to voice support for an open-door policy on hiring. “We urgently request a timely decision that allows us to recruit top international graduate students with an assistantship, irrespective of their nationality,” declares the petition, sent on 6 December to UF President Ben Sasse and senior UF leadership. “Failure to act swiftly may result in the loss of exceptional students to other universities, and the damage will be irreversible.”

The uncertainly created by the law has already put a freeze on making offers to research students in China for the fall of 2024, which normally happens in December and early January. “We have missed that window,” says Zhong-Ren Peng, a UF professor of urban planning who leads a center for adaptation planning and design. “And the best students cannot wait. Instead, they will go somewhere else.”

Passed unanimously by the state legislation in May, the law (SB 846) is part of a broader effort by state lawmakers and Governor Ron DeSantis (R) to thwart what they see as attempts by China and other countries to influence what happens on campuses and steal intellectual property. Backers point to a few cases in which Florida scientists failed to disclose ties to China or used public funds to support work there as evidence that state universities need to be more vigilant.

The law applies to all financial interactions with China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. Exceptions are allowed only when the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education in the state, decides that the interaction “is not detrimental to the safety or security of the U.S. or its residents.”

That decision, to be made on a case-by-case basis, would be the last step in a lengthy vetting process for anyone seeking a research position as a graduate assistant or postdoc. (Students from the countries of concern could still be admitted to a graduate program but could not be paid to work on a research project.) The law classes as a “foreign researcher” not just people currently living in another country, but also anyone with 1 year or more of training or employment outside the United States—even if they hold U.S. citizenship. What’s more, those turned away because of something in their background seen as suspect must be reported to FBI or another law enforcement agency designated by the governor.

In October, the Board of Governors provided guidance intended to help universities draw up policies that comply with the new law. The new procedures were supposed to be in place by 1 December. But universities are still scrambling to write them. “The university is presently developing policies and procedures that conform to these new requirements,” says David Norton, UF’s vice president for research.

Norton says UF now employs about 350 graduate assistants and 200 postdocs from the seven countries of concern. But UF faculty see a much bigger ripple effect from the new law. “A substantial number of skilled applications for our graduate programs originate from these countries of concern,” the petition notes, singling out China and Iran. “Restrictions on recruiting could significantly reduce our applicant pool … and lead to a significant erosion of UF’s standing within those international communities.”

Computational chemist Wenjun Xie, who took a tenure-track position at UF in July, worries that eliminating students from countries on the list could cripple his ability to staff his lab and generate the type of preliminary results needed to win a federal research grant. “As a new investigator working in the rapidly evolving field of AI research, this situation is particularly problematic for me,” he says.

Computational chemist Chenglong Li, a chaired professor in the same department of medicinal chemistry that recently hired Xie, fears the restrictions “will hurt UF’s reputation at a time when we are striving for excellence in artificial intelligence.” Li adds, “I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Li also worries the law could put faculty supported by federal grants at odds with U.S. laws banning discrimination by those receiving federal funding. “As a principal investigator, we promise not to discriminate based on race or national origin,” he notes. “But SB 846 is doing exactly that.”

Singling out individuals is never a good idea, agrees Rebecca Keiser, who leads a new office on research security at the National Science Foundation. “There are risks posed by a particular entity or a particular government,” says Keiser, who declined to comment on the Florida law. “But I think it’s better to focus on how to get to yes, with the proper safeguards in place, rather than on excluding individuals.”

Source: Science