Reif emphasizes the value of immigrants in light of U.S. government actions against Chinese researchers and scientists

MIT currently in discussion with Washington officials on these issues

President L. Rafael Reif sent a letter to the MIT community June 25, calling on the MIT community to not “create a toxic atmosphere in unfounded suspicion and fear” in managing research risks, in light of both anti-immigration rhetoric and U.S. policies and statements that have targeted Chinese and Chinese-American researchers and scientists. 

Reif wrote that although the U.S. government has raised serious concerns about incidents of Chinese government supported academic espionage and there have been some cases of researchers of Chinese background who have acted in bad faith, these incidents “are the exception and very far from the rule.” 

“Yet, faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealing with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized, and on edge — because of their Chinese ethnicity alone,” Reif wrote. 

Reif pointed to issues such as protracted visa delays and “harsh rhetoric against most immigrants and a range of other groups, because of religion, race, ethnicity or national origin.”

Reif denounced these agencies’ actions as “corrosive to [the Institute’s] collaborative strength and open-hearted ideals.” 

Reif concluded, “In a nation like ours, immigration is a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole. As a society, when we offer immigrants the gift of opportunity, we receive in return vital fuel for our shared future.”

Associate Provost Richard Lester PhD ’80 said in an interview with The Tech that the letter was not motivated by any singular event, but rather a buildup of concerns that “had been brewing for a while” and the expression of such concerns by faculty.  

Like Reif, Lester noted that there have been difficulties with visa delays, which will continue to be a problem if circumstances do not change. 

Lester said he is not aware of any faculty members that have been directly affected by these issues. There has also been no decline in the number of students who come to MIT from China. 

Lester said that the U.S. government has been concerned about espionage and theft issues for about a year and a half, and that MIT has similarly been concerned for “some significant period.” The rhetoric about immigration has also been accumulating for the past couple of years, Lester continued.

Lester said that MIT has been taking actions, mostly privately, in discussions with officials in Washington. Discussions have included explaining “how we work, why we work, why it’s so important for us that outstanding students and researchers and faculty members are able to come to our campus, and why the country benefits from uninterrupted flows of talented people to our universities,” as well as listening to the concerns of the government. The MIT Washington Office has been active in these discussions.

MIT additionally participates in university consortia, such as the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities. These consortia have formed working groups with agencies to discuss these problems, Lester said.

Although many officials in Washington have appreciated these discussions and listened politely, the conversations in Washington have become “unbalanced,” Lester said. “It is sometimes hard for people who have not worked in research and who have not worked in science or technology to appreciate that collaboration between researchers generally involves flows of information in both directions.”  

Lester said that MIT will continue looking for new ways to collaborate with colleagues in China and working hard to ensure that the “best people can come to MIT,” especially as he foresees collaborations with China to be “increasingly important,” with co-publication increasing tenfold over the past decade. 

Lester emphasized that MIT takes security “very seriously” and that it does not support ethnicity-targeting measures. He stressed the need for both MIT and the U.S. to “balance the need for protection and maintaining national security against the importance to the country as well as our university of preserving openness and ensuring no discrimination on the basis of national origin or ethnicity.”

All MIT research is open; therefore, the Institute does not accept any research grants whose projects discriminate on citizenship or require permission before publication, Maria Zuber, vice president for research, said in an interview with The Tech.

However, at Lincoln Lab, there is both classified and unclassified research. Classified research can impose requirements on researchers, such as requiring them to be a U.S. citizen, obtain a security clearance, or not openly share their work. 

Fellowships that are ethnicity-based or grants that only give funding to U.S. citizens are allowed. But, non-U.S. citizens are still allowed to participate in these projects, provided that they can obtain another funding source, Zuber said. 

Zuber emphasized that improving security relies on identifying processes and organizational structures that need to be enhanced, rather than targeting any particular ethnic group. 

MIT instituted a new review process for “elevated risk” international proposals this past April. For certain countries, including China, proposals may be subject to review by the Senior Risk Group. The process is meant to assess the risks of both undertaking and not undertaking a project, Zuber explained. The process evaluates the uniqueness of the relationship; treatment of intellectual property, data sharing and security, and personal privacy; whether the work could be used for repressive purposes or otherwise misused; the location of the work; if there will be travel; and who the collaborators on the project will be. 

Additionally, MIT requires researchers to report conflicts of interest and outside professional activities, including their current and pending sources of support. These reports are reviewed annually, Zuber said. 

Lester invited anyone in the MIT community that was worried about these circumstances to talk to administrators, especially if there are specific instances in which they have been affected. 

“My door is open. I know it’s true about others in the administration,” Lester said.